One of the ironies of living in an age of sustainability and renewable resources is that certain products and applications are best achieved with the use of virgin material.
What Are We Talking About?
It will be helpful to understand what is meant when people use terms like “virgin” and “recycled.”
Virgin, of course, is resin produced directly from petrochemical feedstock, such as natural gas or crude oil, materials that have never before been used or processed. Recycled, however, can mean a lot of different things.
Post-Consumer is exactly what it says: material that has been reclaimed after leaving the hands of the consumer. For instance, a recycled plastic milk carton is taken to a facility where it is washed, re-ground, and pelletized into a new, post-consumer substance.
Post-Industrial, by contrast, is recycled plastic that never left the manufacturing floor (and has never made it to the consumer). In the interest of containing costs and efficiency, manufacturers aim for zero waste during the production process. They recycle scrap pieces, extra material, and anything that is isn’t yet appropriate for consumers.
Which Process Is “Cleanest” for the Environment?
Depending on how it is re-processed, post-consumer material is the least “clean” of the three, because of the feedstock’s variable quality. Even with it is blended—a process that adds overall strength—neither post-consumer nor post-industrial recycled materials will never achieve 100% of the mechanical properties of virgin substances.
That doesn’t mean recycled plastics can’t be used in numerous applications, but it does explain why recycled materials are often issued lower safety ratings. It also explains why manufacturers have made headway in employing recycled materials for products including plastic bags and disposable packaging, but are still evaluating the best ways to use it in larger structural and infrastructure components. In the case of structural products, if recycled materials are being used, it may require a lower safety or strength rating.
The Question of Sustainability
There is more to sustainability than just the word “recycled.” Although it’s tempting to assume that something that is recycled is more sustainable than something made from virgin material, this isn’t always the case. Sustainability is the sum of all a material’s parts, and there can be many. For instance, while relatively small, there are ecological impacts from the fuel energy expended just driving around to pick up post-consumer materials, from the re-processing (cleaning and grinding) process, and from the added resin weight that is required to maintain the same mechanical properties.
Each manufacturer weighs many variables when deciding whether to use recycled or virgin materials.