Infrastructure and the Future of Plastic Recycling

It is common knowledge that less than 10% of all the plastics produced globally get recycled. Most of what does consists of post-industrial plastics that go to recyclers already sorted and cleaned. If we could figure out how to flip the numbers – to recycle 90% and dispose of 10% – how would all the recycled material be put to use? Infrastructure is one possibility.

A July 2023 report released by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) calls for government leaders in the U.S. to start working on policies that would standardize plastic manufacturing and recycling. The goal would be to make recycling more effective and financially viable by setting standards on the industry.

The report also says that the most viable target for larger volumes of recycled plastics is infrastructure. Report authors insist that infrastructure is an untapped market capable of utilizing a lot more plastic than it currently does. Whether or not this is true is a matter of debate. However, it is a premise worth looking into more deeply.

Current Recycling Challenges

What can only be described as a dismal recycling rate is not a reflection of plastic itself. Most types of plastic, if dealt with separately and on a scale large enough to make recycling worthwhile, can be recycled. We prove it every day here at Seraphim Plastics. We recycle a variety of different plastics utilizing a mechanical process that transforms industrial scrap plastic into regrind.

Unfortunately, post-industrial recycling does not adequately handle a much larger post-consumer waste stream. Equally unfortunate is the decades-old attempt to apply a single-stream recycling model to the post-consumer market. It doesn’t work.

Post-consumer plastics need to be sorted by type. They also need to be sorted from other recyclable materials like glass and paper. The icing on the cake is the need to decontaminate plastics before they can be processed. These are all challenges that make post-consumer recycling not worth the time and effort.

That said, can we change the game by standardizing plastics and diverting recycled material to infrastructure? The NASEM seems to think so.

Viable Infrastructure Projects

According to the report, four particular types of plastics are easily adapted to infrastructure projects. They are polyethylene terephthalate (PET), high-density polyethylene (HDPE), low-density polyethylene (LDPE), and polypropylene (PP). All offer adequate chemical resistance along with more than enough strength.

The report suggests using recycled material to produce:

  • Drain and sewer pipes.
  • Asphalt pavement mixes.
  • Utility poles.
  • Sound barriers.

Drain and sewer pipes are already more likely to be made with recycled plastics than in the past. But the report suggests a plethora of additional applications if we could just standardize things to get a better handle on the plastic stream. If nothing else, the proposition is intriguing.

Strength and Durability Are the Issues

When it comes to infrastructure, strength and durability are the big issues. That being the case, imagine a load of colored plastic waste. Imagine the load has multiple colors mixed in. Under normal circumstances, sorting the scrap by color wouldn’t be worthwhile. Yet manufacturers would not want to mix multiple colors together to make a new product.

Mixing those colors to fabricate new drain pipes would not be a problem. The pipes will eventually be buried in the ground. It doesn’t matter what color they are. It doesn’t matter what they look like as long as they are strong and durable enough to do the job.

The NASEM might be onto something. Perhaps infrastructure is a viable target for future plastic recycling, if we could ever manage to overcome the current challenges.