Despite all the excitement about cutting out plastic, it’s unrealistic to think that all printed plastics will disappear. However it’s not unrealistic to start thinking about improved collection and recycling models for them. This is a massive problem and one that impacts printers in the packaging and sign and display sectors particularly. Unlike paper and board, few plastics readily biodegrade so their value is low.
Recycling plastic is tricky because there are so many different types, with at least four used for bottles and bottles often have caps made from a different plastic which has to be processed separately. There are many applications and materials such as plastics used in vehicle wrapping and foam board banners which can be recycled but for which there are relatively few facilities.
This all makes it more complicated to sort and process the plastics for other purposes. And then there is the cost involved. It should be possible to recycle pretty much any plastic but the costs of doing so may outweigh the benefits, particularly from an environmental perspective. The more muddled the plastic source, the less likely it is that high grade output will be obtained. This is also a problem with paper recycling, however many deinking mills have moved with the times and can produce deinked pulp suitable as a raw material for various paper grades.
Plastic packaging and sign and display materials are the prime candidates for plastic recycling in the graphics industry. How this material is processed into new raw materials requires management of a variety of different steps, many of which are governed by local considerations. Everyone needs to be involved to some extent, but environmentalists must be realistic and accept that recycling has also to be convenient for consumers. Sorting, collection, handling contaminants, process complexity, output grade, value of the end product all have to be taken into account.
It might be that these factors and the diversity of plastic materials is too great for industrial recycling. It might make more sense to process plastics nonspecifically and to use them for other purposes. There are bicycle paths in the Netherlands made entirely of recycled plastic. It’s still early days but we can trust that as soon as a viable commercial opportunity is clear that plastics recycling and reuse will become widespread.
– Laurel Brunner
This article was produced by the Verdigris Project, an industry initiative intended to raise awareness of print’s positive environmental impact. This weekly commentary helps printing companies keep up to date with environmental standards, and how environmentally friendly business management can help improve their bottom lines. Verdigris is supported by the following companies: Agfa Graphics, EFI, Fespa, HP, Kodak, Kornit, Ricoh, Spindrift, Splash PR, Unity Publishing and Xeikon.