Plastics are both easy – and tricky – and some are just downright dangerous.
WARNING: Don’t try plastic recycling until you’ve at least read this page, and (preferably) a dozen more on the subject. Some plastics will kill you – slowly and painfully – unless you have the right equipment to deal with them, and many are just best to not even be going near.
I have respiratory issues and I’m careful of my health. Even so I can only successfully recycle a small number of plastic types.
What I’m currently buying:
Soft drink bottle lids. (Vegemite jar lids, vitamin jar lids, and some milk jug lids I’d like to but can’t yet buy.) I have to ask for any plastics I buy to be clean, and all one plastic type. (More on that in a tick. The right type’s important.)
An easy way to wash a bunch of lids is to stick them in a clean 3litre milk jug with fresh water and a drop – and really, not much more than a drop – of dish detergent, put the lid on and shake for a minute, then drain the water into another clean milk jug, empty the lids onto a piece of cardboard or cloth and let it dry, meanwhile you can process another lot of lids using the water you just saved. It can generally be used multiple times.
Note: I’m assuming you’re recycling the bottle caps from your return scheme bottles because they fit through the opening in a milk bottle. (Top Hint: Those 3litre “Community” milk bottles have the widest necks, but you can find pretty much anything to shake-wash the caps, as long as it’s safe.)
Why only bottle caps.
Plastic is bulky. I either need to process it right away, or have space to store it. A bucket full of plastic jars and bottles contains just a few grams of plastic. That same bucket full of bottle caps can pack tighter and contain a kilo or two of plastic. If I had a pellet-making machine that bucket could contain five to ten kilograms of plastic. I currently have just enough space for a few kilos of bottle caps at a time. Once I manage to get such a pelletiser, I’ll be able to accept bulkier plastics because they’ll all become flakes or pellets and so take up minimal storage space.
But to get to that stage I’ll need to have made hundreds – thousands – of items and sold them.
Why only the one type of plastic?
Different plastics melt at different temperatures, if I had to heat the plastic to the point where the highest-temperature plastic would melt, the lower-temperature plastics would already be burning, curdling, giving off fumes, and turning into a bubbled, pock-marked, burnt mess.
There’s also the actual chemicals the plastics are made from. They may both melt at close to the same temperatures, but their chemistries could be incompatible and so – welcome, pock-marked charred bubbled lump…
For the moment the plastic I can buy is called HDPE, a triangle with a “2” inside is its recycle number, and it could be stamped “HDPE” or “PE-HD” and it’s all the same material. HDPE is the most easily recyclable and most popular to recycle plastic material in the world, and as far as tests I’ve seen carried out, it can be crushed, melted, formed, crushed, melted formed – for more than 30 cycles without harm. The upper limit for it simply hasn’t been reached – some Youtubers did the experiment and it took them days to get to 30 recycles, but at the end you couldn’t tell the original and the 30th recycle apart in any way.
Why it has to be washed.
I’ll be able to make a proper plastic wash system one day – but not yet. If I’m spending all my time hand-washing plastic as it comes in, I’ll never have time to process any of it and then do all the work involved in making products out of it. If I never have products to sell, I can’t afford to buy more plastic…
So clean plastic is important.
Why I’d ideally also like colour-sorted batches, too.
Sometimes, a swirl of colours is great when making something. But mostly, people want their recycled plastic items to look great and have a colour scheme. That’s another reason plastic takes up so much storage space. But it’s the way to go. If you can pre-sort them for me, that saves me time to sort them myself. And any time I spend on sorting the material is time I’m not making anything with it. I’ll accept mixed colours but would prefer not to have to. You can bring in any number of colours separated out into colours and I’ll still weigh them all for you.
What The Future Might Hold
If I can get a shredder/pelletiser then I’ll be able to accept a wider range of plastic items, like larger lids, fully HDPE bottles and jugs, and later, also more types of plastics. It all depends on community support, people like yourself providing the base materials, and my having time to start making useful sellable items – and then selling them. And I’m all for that.
The eventual plan is to set up a community-supported recycling centre where people can come in and work, and which may eventually even employ a coordinator and perhaps a few others. (I hope that won’t be me because I have a dozen projects on the go and just want to launch lots of them and watch them put Wonthaggi and surrounding towns on the map. But it’ll need a lot of people getting behind each project.)
For the moment I’ll be stoked if I can get HDPE, PP, and LDPE processing going, with washing and sorting, too, and then handing the project on and just advising and lending a hand when I can. After plastics there are thin metals (tin cans, e.g.) to design easily achievable recycling/re-use procedures for, cardboard and textiles, and food waste. Those are my stretch goals, for now it starts with bottle caps…
Okay – now the plastics:
HDPE (High Density PolyEthylene) is what most bottle caps (drink and sauce bottle, Vegemite, honey, and peanut paste jar lids) are made from. Also vitamin bottles and their lids, big tomato sauce jugs are generally made of HDPE as are vinegar and milk jugs, and the lids and bodies of cream tubs are generally HDPE or LDPE, both of which can be recycled.
That gets us to PolyPropylene. Some lids are made from this plastic, it’s a harder shinier plastic than HDPE or LDPE. Other stuff made from PP includes all those plastic pots you get plants from the nursery or Bunnings in, not the really thin soft crinkly kind though because for some reason they just don’t work. One day I hope to be able to accept PP as well.
Low Density PolyEthylene gets used for some drinks lids and is generally fine to recycle. Some department store shopping bags are made from LDPE but I can’t easily process those. Yet…
PET PolyEthylene Tetrafluoride (yeah, really) is the clear plastic drink bottles are made from and that you can hand back in for the 10c rebate. — minus their caps, of course, which I’ll happily take.
Types 7 (the dreaded “Assorted” plastics that you never know what’s in them) and ABS are either impossible to recycle on a small scale or else give off toxic fumes.
Type 3 (PVC, PolyVinyl Chloride) and Type 6 (PS PolyStyrene) are really nasty, very toxic, fume agents that you just don’t want to mess with, and are the #1 poison fumes sources in house fires. They don’t just give off toxic fumes when they’re on fire, but also just when they get hot enough to melt, unless you have very well-controlled heating.