Where does my Recycling Go? Part 2: Converters

Oct 24, 2017 | News

Last week we looked at Material Recovery Facilities, the first stop for your recycling. This week we continue the story and show you how recovered plastics are recycled and turned into a new product. In this, the fourth instalment of the African Marine Waste Network Showcase, we visited a plastic converter that turns trash into pellets to make new plastic products and a bottle-to-fibre plant that turns plastic bottles into fibre for textiles and clothing.

Converter: The Atlantic Plastic Recycling Company

The Atlantic Plastic Recycling Company is a family owned business that focusses on three plastic types; high density polyethylene (found in pipes and bottle caps), low density polyethylene (found in flexible items like packaging, plastic wraps and juice and milk cartons) and polypropylene (found in clothing and textiles, loudspeakers, laboratory test tubes, packaging and plastic moulding).

The factory receives plastic material from various source like the Kraaifontein MRF. Material is fed into a granulator which chops large items up into small flakes. To increase the quality of this material it is subjected to an intensive washing process to remove labels, dirt and other contaminants, before being dried and fed into an extruder.

Left: A worker sifts shredded plastic material.   
Right: Plastic pellets to be sent to manufacturers.

The extruder melts the flakes and forces the molten plastic through a sieve, creating several strings of spaghetti-like plastic which is then cooled in a water bath. The cooled plastic strings are chopped into plastic pellets, bagged and sent to manufacturers to make new products, for example, refuse bags.

Watch this video if you want to find out more about how plastic bags are made:

Bottle-to-Fibre Plant: PETCO / Extrupet

Did you know that plastic bottles can be turned into clothing? At Extrupet’s recycling plant polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles are transformed into textiles.

This video shows the process explained below.

First the PET bottles are sorted to separate coloured bottles from clear ones, the latter of which is of higher value as they create thread that can be dyed another colour. The bottles are then shredded and the shredded material is sent to the Bottle-to-Fibre Plant. Material is then sent through a series of cleaning processes – it is shaken in an agitator to knock off the labels, sent through a series of “sink-swim” processes where polypropylene lids are separated from the desirable PET bottle fragments due to different densities, washed in caustic soda, and rinsed and dried.

Left: Material before being subjected to “sink-swim”.
Right: Clean material ready to be melted down.

The washed flakes are made into pellets in a densifier and fed into an extruder through a giant screw. The extruder melts the plastic and creates plastic strings which are cut into smaller pieces to make plastic thread with fixed physical properties. To strengthen the thread, they are combined and stretched 300 times before being shredded to form the raw substance needed to make polyester. Extrupet’s Bottle-to-fibre Plant processes 45 tonnes of bottles and exports around a third of their total product output. Material is used to make clothing like Woolworth’s jeans, used as carpets in the automobile industry, and as matressing, bedding and insulation.

Different coloured fibres are made from various bottles. White is the most valuable as it can be dyed any colour and is commonly used to make clothing. Black material is used in the automobile industry.

In the 60s, Extrupet’s plant was creating virgin textile materials but began to be outcompeted on the international market. In response to this local industry collapse, the company adapted to manufacturing recycled textiles, and today provides jobs for 138 employees.

Converters like Atlantic Recycling and Extrupet are responsible for transforming your recyclable materials into a new product. You can read more about the importance of recycling and the value of waste in a circular economy in the upcoming Strategy for Marine Waste: Guide to Action for Africa document.