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Periodic graphics: How is plastic recycled?

Chemical educator and Compound Interest blogger Andy Brunning explains what happens (or doesn’t) after you throw those bottles and bags in the recycle bin

by Andy Brunning
April 19, 2018 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 96, ISSUE 17


To download a PDF of this article, visit

References used to create this graphic:

Earth Day 2018

Current state and potential for increasing plastics recycling in the U.S.

Introduction to waste reduction model (WARM) and plastics

Common plastics No. 1 to No. 7

How is plastic recycled?

A collaboration between C&EN and Andy Brunning, author of the popular graphics blog Compound Interest

To see more of Brunning’s work, go to To see all of C&EN’s Periodic Graphics, visit



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Nigel Johnson (April 22, 2018 7:42 PM)
The is no mention of the value of the recycled plastic. Polystyrene is rejected by many councils, yet expanded polystyrene is still the preferred packing material for most home electronics products. Home owners can accumulate a mountain of this stuff with no way to dispose of it. Most home owners are diligent is disposing of plastic waste, yet it still finds its way into the environment. This suggests that local government is negligent in its disposal process. Rather than expecting the relatively powerless consumer tondewl with the problem, shouldn't the problem be deal with at source and destination?
Emil M Friedman (April 25, 2018 4:23 PM)
What is the chemistry behind the recycling of addition polymers such as polyethylene? Polystyrene can be dissolved in acetone. Are there economically viable solvents for polyethylene?
JDM (April 26, 2018 6:52 AM)
Great article! Keep up the good work.

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