Low-density polyethylene (PE-LD) is the most widely-recycled packaging polymer in South Africa. It is used to manufacture grocery packets, plastic films, plastic sheets, flexible hoses and cable insulation. PE-LD is fairly easy to recycle and has many beneficial uses – making it the most popular packaging material in the country.
Most of the plastics used for packaging applications are mechanically recycled in South Africa. These materials are often picked, sorted and washed by hand before being processed. PE-LD follows a similar process when it is sent to a recycling facility to be turned into recyclate. Interestingly, there is a 100% conversion rate for PE-LD, meaning that none of the recyclate is wasted or left behind.
How PE-LD is recycled
Firstly, discarded PE-LD packaging is collected by waste management companies and informal waste pickers working at landfills. They source and collect the plastic before bailing them into bundles for transport. These compacted bundles of PE-LD waste are then taken to recycling facilities where the process begins.
The PE-LD bundles are undone and the plastic is separated by grade. Due to the many applications and products made using PE-LD, the materials will have various qualities. The plastic waste is cleaned thoroughly to remove any dirt, debris and contaminants. This makes sure that the PE-LD recyclate batch is pure. Any contaminants or dirt could spoil the entire batch and ruin the quality of the end product.
The PE-LD waste is then fed into a large shredder that turns the plastic into thin strips. These shreds of plastic sheet are then fed into a second washer and float tank, where grains of sand and dirt sink to the bottom of the water tank. The plastic floats on the surface of the water and is skimmed at the end of the tank.
The plastic shreds are then dried and fed into a large oven which melts the plastic into a new sheet which is cooled and dried. This sheet of PE-LD polymer is bailed and sold back to plastics manufacturers and packaging producers. Recycled PE-LD is used to manufacture numerous flexible products, such as bin liners, flexible buckets, irrigation hoses and construction sheeting.
PE-LD can be reused in the home
This polymer is highly durable and can withstand a lot of wear and tear for its weight. Consumers should always aim to reuse their PE-LD packets and plastic sheets before discarding them. Sandwich bags can be washed and reused, as can Zip Lock bags. Grocery bags made from PE-LD can be used again and again when visiting the supermarkets.
Contractors and painters can reuse their black plastic sheeting multiple times before throwing it away. The flexibility, lightweight and durability of this polymer lends itself to multiple reuse, making PE-LD a valuable plastic. By reusing these products, consumers can save a lot of money. If discarding PE-LD is necessary, at least it can be recycled, which benefits the local economy and the environment.
Plastics SA represents all sectors of the South African plastics industry. Together with our associations, we play an active role in the growth and development of the industry and strive to address plastics related issues, influence role-players and make plastics the material of choice.
Plastics SA has been mandated to ensure a vibrant and sustainable plastics industry in South Africa. The plastics sector is uniquely placed to meet the needs of a sustainable society and to deliver solutions to many challenges such as recycling, climate change, water scarcity, resource usage and energy recovery.