Using Thermal Analysis for Polymer Recycling and Reuse

It is impossible to discuss the huge increase in polymer production without recognizing the impact that it has had on the environment. On the other hand, using plastics in packaging and transportation helps decrease emissions since their lightweight increases fuel economy.

However, the stability and durability of plastic, which made it so valuable in the first place, make it challenging to dispose of.

Unfortunately, around 16% of global plastic waste is being reused or recycled. The rest is being incinerated, dumped in landfills, or finds its way into the oceans, wreaking havoc on the ecosystem.

Plastic pollution is estimated to cause a minimum of 13 billion USD of damage to marine ecosystems annually. This problem is being tackled at the regulatory level, and several countries and organizations worldwide are taking action to urge the world to move to a more circular economy regarding polymers.

With polymer recycling and reuse being significant for environmental safety, thermal analysis could play a notable role in the sustainability of natural resources.

Using Thermal Analysis for Polymer Recycling and Reuse

Image Credit: Hitachi High-Tech Analytical Science

Plastic Legislation Across the Globe

Over the last few years, legislation has been introduced to minimize the production of plastic that is hard to recycle and to promote the reuse and recycling of plastic waste. A few prominent highlights include the following:

  • A policy on plastic bag usage has been adopted by 66% of countries. Each year, up to five trillion plastic bags — many of which are made of LDPE that cannot be recycled — are produced. Several countries, like China and Canada, have a complete or partial ban in place, whereas other countries, like the UK, Spain, and Finland, are charging for plastic bags.
  • Canada has categorized plastics as hazardous materials and has suggested regulations on six types of single-use plastics. These include ring carriers, straws, plastic grocery bags, and non-recyclable takeaway food containers.
  • By 2025, China intends to ban the use of plastic products entirely. This is being rolled out in a phased plan, with the initial phase banning bags and straws in most cities.
  • By 2022 and 2023, France and Spain will no longer allow the plastic wrapping of some fruits and vegetables. The objective of France’s so-called “Circular Economy Law” is to phase out single-use plastic packaging by the year 2040 completely.
  • By 2025, Hong Kong plans to ban all single-use polystyrene tableware.
  • The UK is planning to ban all single-use tableware and plastic cutlery.
  • Also, France is driving the recycling and reusing angle by setting a goal to have 10% of commercially available reusable packaging by 2027, with Germany and Austria initiating similar targets.
  • Several governments are shifting the responsibility for recycling onto the producers themselves with Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policies. This indicates that the producers are accountable for the recycling and collection of the plastics that they have produced and sold into the marketplace.
  • Deposit return schemes for plastic packaging are becoming increasingly popular in Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, and some US states.

The worldwide promotion of recycling and reuse implies that examining polymers before use is more significant than ever. Thermal analysis makes using recycled material with confidence possible as it provides a full materials characterization.

How to Recycle Polymers and Rubbers

Recycling waste plastic is not as simple as recycling metal, where instruments, humans, and machines can easily sort metal and detect the presence of impurities. There are two methods for recycling plastics: feedstock or chemical recycling, or mechanical recycling.

It is possible to break down polymers into simpler molecules by adopting chemical or feedstock recycling technologies. This uses heat to convert them into useful secondary raw materials. But this process consumes large amounts of energy.

Plastics are often recycled mechanically: cleaned, sorted, melted, shredded, and remolded. However, the more times plastic is melted, the more times polymer chains are broken down, reducing tensile strength and viscosity, making it more lower quality and eventually unusable.

Many are wary of using recycled plastic since they are uncertain about the batch quality and eventually meeting material properties of the end product. However, recycling polymers and the resultant material quality control and assurance does not have to be complicated or costly.

Using Thermal Analysis for Polymer Recycling and Reuse

For waste rubbers and polymers, analysis plays a vital role in categorizing them for reprocessing and recycling. Thermal analyzers have the potential to detect and determine possible impurities and offer constant analysis of recycled polymers to guarantee product specifications are met.

Both thermogavimetric analysis (TGA) and differential scanning calorimetry (DSC) offer a simple and quick method for examining recycled polymers in a cost-effective manner. Users can also use simultaneous thermogravimetric analysis (STA), which integrates TGA and DSC to gather various information concurrently.

When polymers are received for recycling, it is simple to verify, detect, determine impurities, and gain knowledge regarding plastics with thermal analysis.

Advantages of Thermal Analysis

The primary benefit of thermal analysis is that it provides a precise understanding of the fundamental properties of bulk materials. Users can often deduce what is in the mixture by studying the behavior of the constituent polymers, even in the case of complex materials. Users can effortlessly investigate novel materials because it is adaptable to a wide variety of materials and does not require material-specific calibration curves.

With little training and an instrument with a high level of automation, the analyses can be performed with very little sample preparation and without using any hazardous chemicals.

The Real View® camera system combines smoothly with various STA, DSC, and DMA analyzers to provide real-time monitoring of changes in the sample status during analysis. Images disclose changes in sample size, shape, color, and other properties. The images can then be recorded and automatically linked to the thermal data by timestamp.

Polymer recycling and reuse should not be complicated; all it takes is the correct equipment to make the job easier.

This information has been sourced, reviewed and adapted from materials provided by Hitachi High-Tech Analytical Science.

For more information on this source, please visit Hitachi High-Tech Analytical Science.

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