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Plastics recycling: challenges and opportunities

Jefferson Hopewell, Robert Dvorak, Edward Kosior
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences 2009 July 27, 364 (1526): 2115-26
19528059
Plastics are inexpensive, lightweight and durable materials, which can readily be moulded into a variety of products that find use in a wide range of applications. As a consequence, the production of plastics has increased markedly over the last 60 years. However, current levels of their usage and disposal generate several environmental problems. Around 4 per cent of world oil and gas production, a non-renewable resource, is used as feedstock for plastics and a further 3-4% is expended to provide energy for their manufacture. A major portion of plastic produced each year is used to make disposable items of packaging or other short-lived products that are discarded within a year of manufacture. These two observations alone indicate that our current use of plastics is not sustainable. In addition, because of the durability of the polymers involved, substantial quantities of discarded end-of-life plastics are accumulating as debris in landfills and in natural habitats worldwide. Recycling is one of the most important actions currently available to reduce these impacts and represents one of the most dynamic areas in the plastics industry today. Recycling provides opportunities to reduce oil usage, carbon dioxide emissions and the quantities of waste requiring disposal. Here, we briefly set recycling into context against other waste-reduction strategies, namely reduction in material use through downgauging or product reuse, the use of alternative biodegradable materials and energy recovery as fuel. While plastics have been recycled since the 1970s, the quantities that are recycled vary geographically, according to plastic type and application. Recycling of packaging materials has seen rapid expansion over the last decades in a number of countries. Advances in technologies and systems for the collection, sorting and reprocessing of recyclable plastics are creating new opportunities for recycling, and with the combined actions of the public, industry and governments it may be possible to divert the majority of plastic waste from landfills to recycling over the next decades.

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