Recycled Plastic vs. Virgin Plastic in Extrusion

Posted on: November 15, 2021

Picking the right part and the right process starts with the right partner

The pandemic refocused a lot of attention on reshoring many of our manufacturing processes. Supply chain bottlenecks and material shortages are impacting OEMs and how we work with our customers. 

That includes a renewed focus on sustainability, especially as it relates to virgin plastics. While conversations around recycling and closed-loop manufacturing have seen a pretty steady ebb and flow over the past 30 years, today it feels less like a trend and more like the future. 

Between consumer expectations and government mandates in Europe, the interest in utilizing sustainable plastics in manufacturing may be more than fleeting. Also, new laws in the U.S. are likely to require all of us to start being more focused on reducing carbon emissions. 

When is the right time to use recycled plastic for an extruded part? Modifications to various processes will be necessary to utilize less virgin plastic and reduce the carbon footprint of extruded plastic parts.

What is the Impact of Recycled Plastic vs. Virgin Plastic?

According to 2009 research from Stanford, there is a 1-to-1 relationship between an ounce of polyethylene (PET) plastic and an ounce of carbon dioxide. For every ounce of PET plastic that is produced, an ounce of carbon is emitted. 

Because most plastics still are made from either petroleum or natural gas, the entire product cycle touches a carbon-emitting process from extraction to fabrication. How much less carbon is emitted when you utilize recycled plastic vs. virgin plastic? According to that same Stanford article, the short answer is, a lot. Researchers concur that recycling and remanufacturing plastic conserves at least 30% of the carbon emissions, further resulting in an estimated annual reduction of anywhere from 30 to 170 million tons of CO2.

The motivations toward achieving sustainability are well-founded. There’s also probably little question that manufacturing will move the needle toward recycling plastics in far more efficient ways than consumer programs have proven to achieve. How is that easily done and is it cost-effective?

How Practical is the Use of Recycled Plastics in Extrusion?

Today, motivated companies likely can find ways to utilize more sustainable plastics (bio or recycled plastics). The process is still far from standardized and very much in flux. OEMs have to make significant modifications to existing machinery and, in some cases, other systems like ventilation and humidity controls. 

It’s a given that some types of plastics are far easier to recycle and reuse than others. For example, HDPE has a far lower melt temperature (125 degrees C) than PET (260 degrees C). The bottom line: Today, you need to work with an OEM familiar enough with their own internal equipment, machine floor, and your product needs to determine if the existing technology can deliver what you need.

How Can OEMs Retrofit Existing Equipment? 

That’s another fairly loaded question, and one best directed to your sales rep. Virgin plastics behave entirely differently than recycled plastics, as discussed. Recycled plastics may require additives (color, moisture controls, additional solids like hemp, and more) to make them stable after they cool. In order to retrofit equipment, any manufacturer has to address several issues, including:

  • Can the existing equipment be modified at all?
  • How will retrofits or modifications impact throughput, floor plans, ventilation, and the movement of the operators? 
  • Has the engineering team fully analyzed the potential of its existing equipment for a specific process?
  • What are the current success models of other parts, and can that be replicated on the floor?
  • How will those modifications impact the ROI for each process?
  • …and so on.

Retrofits usually create knock-on effects for the rest of the manufacturing process. Your OEM needs to have enough redundancy and a big-enough staffing footprint to take machines (and staff) offline to retrofit, test, and modify as they go. 

Certainly, not all vendors have the capacity to dedicate the required resources to do this today. How do you know you’re working with a vendor that can rise to meet new sustainability goals today?

Finding the Right Vendor to Increase the Use of Sustainable Plastics in Your Manufacturing Process

Start by working with an extruded plastics expert with a wide range of experience working in industries that are more likely already to use recycled materials in their parts.

The automotive industry has been leading the way in the use of post-recycled consumer plastic content. Recycled PET is increasingly found in car interiors for various parts, and has been for some time. Volvo announced in 2018 that by 2025, at least 25% of all plastic in their cars would be sourced from recycled materials. That may give extrusion partners with automotive partners, and a proven history, a bit of a leg up. For example, Custom Profiles works with a range of automotive companies

Because of our consultative approach, we already have acquired a holistic knowledge base about what types of so-called ocean plastics (plastics removed from beaches or bodies of water and sent into the recycling stream) are stable and strong enough for specific applications. Recycled content doesn’t necessarily always match the necessary outcomes. Our experts never recommend recycled materials if that would impact the quality or safety of the part itself. 

Before we begin any process, we always work with the specs our client provides us, focusing on what is optimal for the part and economic needs of the customer. 

Thanks to our team’s broad expertise in the science of plastics and recycled materials, we can tailor the entire design, engineering, and tooling process. We can suggest the right materials for your job, and whether or not it’s even possible to utilize recycled plastics. 

If your team is currently wrestling with whether recycled plastic vs. virgin plastic is best for your product, we can help! Connect with us to discuss your extrusion needs today.

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