When it comes to thermoplastics, you might not be clear on whether they can be recycled, as there is some confusion about the difference between thermoplastics and thermosets, especially when it comes to recycling. What’s the truth? Are thermoplastics recyclable, and how do they differ from thermosets?
Can Thermoplastics Be Recycled?
The simple answer is yes. Thermoplastics are a type of plastic that become soft when heated, so they can be molded, and then cooled to restore their rigid structure. Thermoplastics are frequently used to create items as diverse as pipes, insulators, adhesives, and more, and many of these products can be recycled and turned into new, usable products. What makes thermoplastics recyclable is that they can easily be reheated and remolded for new purposes.
The polymers found in thermoplastics are strong, but feature weak bonds. This is what allows them to be reused indefinitely, which is why these materials are highly recyclable. Different applications can cause plastics to downgrade when they are recycled, making them less recyclable with every phase of reuse, but this is typically related to additives, not the polymers themselves. Chemical additives are often designed to strengthen the bonds of thermoplastics, making them harder to melt and therefore limiting their potential for reuse.
The Difference Between Thermoplastics And Thermosets
There are essentially two main categories of plastics: thermoplastics and thermosets. What sets them apart? Primarily the way their polymers are linked. As noted above, thermoplastics feature weak bonds that allow for easy reheating and molding of the plastic.
Thermosets differ in that they feature permanent chemical bonds that cause them to retain their shape, even when reheated. This makes for strong products, but it is difficult to break down such plastics for the purposes of recycling and reuse. Thermosets cannot be heated and remolded like thermoplastics. They are brittle, but heat-resistant, which is why they’re frequently used for high-temperature applications, such as insulating materials.
The particular difference between thermoplastics and thermosets lies in the bonds linking polymers. In a sense, thermoplastic bonds could be described as ties that can be cut and retied, while thermoset bonds are more like a strong weld that is virtually unbreakable.
Knowing which types of plastic can be recycled isn’t easy, and there are factors beyond the polymers themselves that can affect recyclability. One thing, though, is entirely clear: thermoplastics are recyclable. Thermosets cannot be recycled in the same ways, but this doesn’t necessarily preclude some form of reuse.