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Industrial, Commercial, and Residential Plastic Discards: Know The Difference

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In determining how feasible it is to recycle different types of plastic, it matters whether the recycled materials come from industrial, commercial, or residential sources.

clean and homogeneous
dirty and heterogeneous
know the difference

secondary markets for plastics

Industrial and Some Commercial Plastic Discards:
Clean and Homogeneous

Because it is important to keep different types of plastic separate in the melting stage of recycling, and also because contaminants such as organic materials, glass, metal bits, or moisture interfere with the melting process, the best plastic for recycling is clean and all of one type (homogeneous).

Clean, homogeneous discarded plastic comes primarily from plastic factory cuttings and extras. These sources are called "pre-consumer" scrap; the materials are untainted, not having gone through actual use.

Another example of clean and homogeneous plastic discards comes from businesses that go through large quantities of the same type of plastic product and are able to keep it separate and clean (such as with plastic wrapping and packaging involved in shipping and receiving).

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Residential and Other Commercial Plastic Discards:
Dirty and Heterogeneous

Plastic products that have been soiled in use discarded with other materials are far more difficult to recycle.

Most consumer plastics are collected along with cans and glass bottles in a commingled mixed (heterogeneous) stream. Because these materials have to be sorted and washed clean, they are harder and more expensive to recycle. Thus they are less valuable as a commodity than clean, homogeneous discarded plastic.

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Know the Difference

You may have heard of cases in which plastics that are very difficult to recycle (for example Styrofoam) are being made into new products. Usually these are cases of clean, homogeneous plastics discards being recycled.

This adds to general confusion about what is recyclable. Just because in one place and time there is a viable case of clean, homogeneous plastic recycling going on, this does not mean that it makes sense to include that same plastic in a curbside, commingled residential recycling program.

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