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Plastics waste management Introduction to plastics waste management
Returnable, refillable and reusable plastic products are in current use. In
Sweden, PET drinks bottles are returnable. Plastic pallets, plastic trays and
plastic boxes (totes) used in distribution are returnable and reusable. Further
development of this concept will reduce the amount of plastic in the waste stream.
Plastic waste arising in manufacture is minimal as thermoplastics can be
melted and reused.
The main issue concerns the 40% of the total plastic materials market
which is used in packaging, and in particular the proportion which arises in
domestic waste or trash. In the UK, studies have indicated that plastic waste
comprises around 5–7% of household waste by weight.
The recovery of domestic plastic waste is a logistical challenge due to there
being so many different types of plastic. Additional factors affecting the commercial viability of plastics waste recovery relate to the cost of virgin plastics,
the low weight to volume ratio, which increases the handling cost and the fact
that the waste arises over a large area geographically. Plastic packaging waste
recovery rates in Europe are rising year on year. The overall average (2000)
was 46%, with eight countries achieving rates of over 50%. The highest rates
were Holland 100%, Switzerland 98%, Denmark 88% and Germany 74%.
Recovery itself is not recycling. Recycling can either comprise reuse of the
material, energy recovery or composting. The European average for the reuse
of plastics in all forms of waste, including packaging, is 36%. This is made up
from recycling at 13% and incineration with energy recovery at 23%. The balance,
64%, is either sent to landfill or is incinerated without energy recovery.
If plastics are to be recycled as material, they must be segregated from other
plastics. The most widely recycled items of plastic food packaging are PET
bottles and HDPE milk bottles. Both arise in significant volumes and are easily
sorted, making the process commercially viable. The plastic is reground for
reuse. This process is also referred to as mechanical recycling. In the UK,
about 50 000 tonnes of PE film is recovered and used to make film for the
building trade and black sacks for refuse (trash) collection.
To assist segregation and sorting, a numerical code inside a recycling symbol (Mobius strip or loop) together with initial letters relating to the plastic
concerned is being displayed on the base of moulded items, i.e.
Code 1
Code 2
Code 3
Code 4
Code 5
Code 6
Code 7
PET or PETE – polyethylene terephthalate
HDPE – high density polyethylene
V – vinyl or polyvinyl chloride
LDPE – low density polyethylene
PP – polypropylene
PS – polystyrene
OTHER – other resins and combined structures.