To quickly sum up TerraCycle’s mission, TerraCycle wants to eliminate the concept of waste. To further that mission, we recycle and upcycle typically unrecyclable waste. To recycle the large amount of plastic packaging waste we collect, we need to turn it into plastic pellets that can be used in manufacturing. Environmentally speaking, this process is a huge improvement over using virgin plastic. “This material is better for the environment than virgin plastic because post-consumer waste now has a second chance, or new life. Not only that, but we also save oil and other materials that would be used to produce virgin plastic,” said Stephen Katz, material sourcing manager at TerraCycle.
I saw some small plastic pellets that were made from snack bags and wondered how chip bags could be turned into plastic pellets, and then how those pellets get turned into recycling bins and other products. Looking online, I saw words like polypropylene, processes that involved densifying machines and injection molding, and a lot more. The explanation was right in front of me, yet I still didn’t understand. So, I went back to my fellow TerraCyclers to try to understand the process.
TerraCycle’s 32 gallon bins are made from recycled polypropylene that was once chip bags and other kinds of plastic materials. Polypropylene is a versatile polymer, which can be used as plastic or fiber. A polymer is a material with a molecular structure consisting of large numbers of similar units bonded together. If you struggled in chemistry like I did, polymers include synthetic materials such as indoor-outdoor carpeting, mini golf course grass, car dashboards, and much more.
Back to the making of the bins: First, the snack bags are shredded and sent to an extruder which heats the material enough to melt it, then forces it out of a small opening. From there, the plastic is cut into pellets, which then cool off and keep their shape. The pellets are shipped to a manufacturer to be melted down again and put through an injection molding process to shape them into a recycling bin. It’s essentially the same concept as putting sand into a mold at the beach, but with high temperatures that fuse the pellets together. The material cools off again and a TerraCycle recycling bin is born, ready to collect recyclables that can be turned into even more new products!