Nearly all the media discussions about plastic recycling focus on postconsumer plastics. They discuss things like plastic food packaging, foam coffee cups, and PET water bottles. But what about postindustrial plastics? Do you know what they are? And if so, do you know how they differ from postconsumer plastics?
The differences between the two categories of plastics are not minor. In fact, they are significant enough to impact recycling efforts. The vast majority of postconsumer plastics produced around the world are discarded in landfills and incinerators. Yet a sizable portion of postindustrial plastics are successfully recycled.
A Definition of Postindustrial Plastics
For a definition of postindustrial plastics, we turn to Tennessee-based Seraphim Plastics. Seraphim Plastics buys plastic scrap from producers in seven states including Kentucky, Missouri, and Indiana. They define postindustrial plastics as plastics produced during, or for the purposes of serving, industrial processes.
An injection mold manufacturer produces plastic waste through the process of manufacturing plastic products. The waste is represented as both part cut-offs and plastic purge. Likewise, some of the materials they use to produce their products might be shipped on plastic pallets. Those pallets are also considered postindustrial waste because they were manufactured for the purposes of serving the company’s industrial process.
An even simpler way to look at it is commercial versus consumer. Plastic waste produced by the commercial sector, without any consumer involvement whatsoever, is postindustrial. The minute plastic waste is produced by a consumer, it becomes postconsumer.
Recycling Postindustrial Plastics
Recycling postindustrial plastic waste tends to be a lot easier and more cost-effective. For starters, postindustrial plastics tend to be a single type of plastic from start to finish. Different plastics are not mixed to create postindustrial products.
Second, postindustrial plastic waste is sorted by the producer prior to being recycled. Companies like Seraphim Plastics do not have to invest any time or effort in sorting or decontaminating. The plastics they pick up can go directly to processing as soon as they arrive at the plant.
Recycling Postconsumer Plastics
Postconsumer recycling is more difficult. Different types of plastics being utilized together makes sorting a challenge. The way some plastics are tightly integrated results and products that cannot be recycled at all, even if their separate components are recyclable.
There is also the issue of sorting plastic materials collected in curbside bins. Plastics need to be separated from paper, glass, and trash. Then the plastics themselves must be sorted by type. All of this takes time and costs money.
The Profit Is Not There
Seraphim Plastics can effectively recycle postindustrial scrap plastic because their process is so simple and cost limited. They do not spend a whole lot on collection and processing. The end result is a plastic regrind material they can sell to manufacturers at a profit. With postconsumer plastics, the profit just isn’t there.
Municipal recycling programs and commercial waste haulers put time and effort into collection. But then there is the extra expense of sorting and cleaning. Finally is the risk of the entire load being contaminated, translating into wasted money.
When all is said and done, municipal recycling programs cannot sell processed material cheaply enough to make it attractive to manufacturers. So they either need to sell at prices that won’t cover their costs or be left stuck with materials manufacturers don’t want to buy.
The differences between postconsumer and postindustrial plastics may seem subtle at first. But upon closer inspection, they are profound enough to impact recycling efforts. If we could make postconsumer plastic waste more like its postindustrial counterpart, we could probably improve plastic recycling around the world.