How Spectrophotometers Analyze Chemical Composition of Plastics and Aid Recycling Efforts

Plastic is something that most of us use every day, but we rarely stop to think about where these materials come from. The chemical composition of plastic plays an important role in product safety and recyclability, yet most of us take that for granted. Understanding the chemical composition of plastics can make a difference in post-consumer reusability, recycling, and product safety. With advancements in spectrophotometric technology and more portable instrumentation options, we now have the ability to accurately identify the chemical composition in plastics and differentiate specific materials to filter out hazardous materials.

chemical composition of plastics baby bottle
Understanding the chemical composition of plastics is important for safety and reusability.
Image Source: Flickr user Bradley Gordon

Identifying toxins with UV analysis

Articles warning about BPA (Bisphenol A) and other potentially harmful chemicals found in plastics have peppered the news headlines, however, the real concern lies not in the safety of new plastic products, but what is happening to the products already in circulation. With dangerous levels of these toxins hiding in the chemical composition, new efforts must be taken to identify compounds effectively for safety and reusability.

Plastic is here to stay, thanks to its durability, flexibility, and the fact that it can be manufactured in a variety of shapes and colors. However, despite all of these features it is still considered an expendable resource. Plastic polymers are made up mainly of crude oil, a non-renewable resource. Therefore, the need for plastic recycling efforts to increase is becoming more and more important, not to mention the negative effect these materials can present when placed in landfills around the world.

plastic straws chemical composition
Plastic is an amazing resource commonly used for industrial purposes, medicine, food packaging, and a number of other products we use daily. Since we are in daily contact with the material, the ability to identify chemical composition is essential for human safety.
Image Source: Flickr user Horia Varlan

The plastics we use today are made up of polymers which are combined together with various additives, and the mixture of these components make up the chemical composition of the product. These additives are necessary for creating the desired performance of the plastics, such as precise color or heat absorption properties, as well as the hardness and pliability of the finished product. These additives are intended to improve the performance of the plastic, yet some have proven to be dangerous to our health and the environment. When these materials are heated or burned they release dangerous toxins into the atmosphere, and many of these materials also have adverse reactions when exposed to soil and water repeatedly over time.

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Many of these additives are now being banned from circulation by organizations such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in the United States and the European Commission of Environmental Waste, which are putting strict regulations on the use and reuse of certain plastic materials or products that may contain hazardous material in their chemical composition. Although new plastic materials are being produced with safer chemical compositions, the ability to identify hazardous materials in post-consumer plastics is essential for increasing effective recycling efforts.

The identification of hazardous materials in plastics used to be a very slow process that required expensive equipment and laboratory testing. However, with spectrophotometric technology we now have the ability to identify and classify these products in a fraction of the time, and with instrument portability this process can be accomplished nearly anywhere.

Using spectrophotometers for plastic identification

Plastic waste materials are a huge problem in our world, and numerous environmental organizations such as the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) are warning both consumers and manufacturers of the effects these wasted materials have on our environment. To increase recycling efforts, it is important that plastics are carefully identified according to their chemical composition. This is impossible to accomplish through human eye analysis, so many plastic products today have been identified using a numerical system that identifies the chemical composition of the product. However, this information is not always readable by the time the product reaches the recycling plant, and it only applies to a handful of plastic products that we use daily.

In order to make recycling efforts work, rapid identification of post-consumer plastic materials must be achieved through spectral analysis. Industries such as automotive, building material production, and carpet production could benefit greatly from fast identification and analysis of their products to increase the recycling efforts and utilize more post-consumer products. The carpet industry alone estimates that over 4 billion pounds of carpeting material are dumped into our landfills each year. Using spectrophotometric analysis to determine the chemical composition of nylon carpeting materials could result in the reusability of much of this wasted material, and efforts from the Carpet America Recovery Effort clearly support this option.

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carpet roll chemical composition
Carpets and rugs alone accounts for more than 4 billion pounds of waste each year. The plastic nylon fibers of this product have the potential for a major increase in recyclability with proper identification.
Image Source: Flickr user Shelah

Advanced spectrophotometers and instrumentation options

Spectral analysis for the proper identification of plastic materials is still in its infancy, but the growth potential is enormous. This technology can be applied to a variety of industrial post-consumer plastic materials, which are adding to the amount of landfill waste each year. The possibilities for product reuse are not only good news for the environment, but also provides a new resource for plastic products without expending our non-renewable resources.

HunterLab is a leader in the industry and state-of-the-art spectrophotometric technology. We are committed to helping industries makes strides in improving the future of our environment. We work hard to help industries meet regulatory standards and conduct efficient product analysis. Contact HunterLab today to learn more about our various instrumentation options and what products options are right for you.

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