Incorporating Recycled Polymers and Plastics

Testing Considerations for Sustainability Goals

05 May 2020

Sustainability is a growing concern for many industries. Whether developing raw materials or manufacturing finished products, many companies are actively exploring ways to incorporate recycled polymers and plastics. There are many industries looking to utilize recycled plastics: medical devices, pharmaceutical, cosmetics, industrial packaging, and food and beverage. They must meet the challenges of coping with varying raw material supplies, the presence of regulatory monitored contaminants and processability/integration of recycled polymer streams in their processes and products. Non-routine analytical testing is the key to success for these products. Using a combination of standardized testing and custom approaches, can help companies implement and meet sustainability strategies.

Contaminant Identification

Recycled streams come from a variety of sources and must be assessed for contaminants. This includes identifying undesired polymer types, polymers with different molecular weight properties, undesired additives (phthalate plasticizers), residual solvents/monomers from recycled stream processing, heavy metals, unexpected residues and processing defects. Contaminant identification and quantitation are tackled using methods such as infrared/Raman microscopy, gas chromatography, scanning electron microscopy and trace metals analysis.  Depending on the question, a host of other techniques might be leveraged, including gel permeation chromatography and gas chromatography or liquid chromatography with mass spectrometry.

Process Optimization

Ensuring a final product meets performance targets is key to a sustainable product's success. Optimize your production process by supplementing standardized mechanical properties with tailored analyses.  By focusing on your specific mechanical stress or application condition, tailored methods will ensure product consistency. Additionally, non-routine analytical approaches can ensure effective incorporation of recycled polymers in the finished product.  They can also be used to determine steady state or kinetic permeation kinetics for oxygen, moisture or a use-specific gas.

Understanding Polymers

Understanding polymers is essential when it comes to using recycled plastic materials in production. It is important to understand the connection between chemistry, process and final material performance in order to get the full value from recycling. Analytic techniques like differential scanning calorimetry (DSC), thermomechanical analysis (TMA), thermogravimetric analysis(TGA) and dynamic mechanical analysis (DMA) are valuable tools in understanding thermal and mechanical properties. Complementing these established tools with chemical analysis methods gives a complete picture.  Tools including nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR), Raman spectroscopy, gel permeation chromatography (GPC), liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry (LC/LCMS), gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC/GCMS) and inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) are a few that are applied to questions associated with recycled polymer applications.

The demand for sustainability and eco-friendly companies and products means many industries are using recycled plastics. Chemical analysis is a valuable tool for identifying which recycled plastics to use, how to optimize the materials and to ensure a successful product. Learn more about testing recycled polymers in our fact sheet.

 

 

Paula McDaniel,
Director of Business Development

 

Paula McDaniel has 30 years of experience in the world of analytical science across multiple industries, including plastics, health and beauty products, specialty chemicals and more. She is currently responsible for business development at Intertek's chemicals and materials lab in Allentown, Pennsylvania, building off functional experience in analytical science, global organization development, business development and polyurethane chemistry.