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Born Again: The Reincarnation of a Plastic Bottle

Part three of a three part series.
WILSON, North Carolina - We’ve seen bottles on shelves, tossed into bins, bundled into bales and shredded and dumped into bags. This whole process spans hundreds of kilometers, and now, the rebirth of a plastic bottle.
“This is how it comes to us and we reprocess it into some other product,” said Mark Rath, a manager at Peninsula Packaging. It’s here that pieces of plastic become consumer-ready products like carry-out trays at grocery stores and cafeterias. “This will become a plastic sheet, and eventually a thermoform product.”
Meaning basically that this part of the plant melts and flattens plastic so that another part can shape and mold it. But the process is a little more complex…
“We take the clear chips like this, and it goes into an oven, and it crystallizes. It cooks for about 3 to 4 hours in that oven,” said Rath.
Now… that’s at nearly 200 degrees celsius. And when the goop comes out they form the plastic into food packaging.
“In order to do that you need to squeeze it out into a thin, wide sheet,” said Rath.
That squeezing takes place in several stations throughout the plant. The plastic is then wrapped, rolled and delivered to what’s called a “thermoform station.” “We unwrap the plastic… into a very long oven where we heat it, again, and then we’ll form it in a forming station. We’ll follow it through and see what happens to it.”
What happens to it involves a vacuum, lots of pressure and believe it or not, more recycling.
“If you could imagine that you’re cutting cookies out of a piece of dough on the counter… you get a round cookie and you have all this dough left over... we put it back through; grind it up into little pieces and put it back through the extrusion process,” said Rath.
In the end, all of the plastics in this plant become some sort of container in their next lives.
“That’ll end up being a fresh-cut-salad base. Not sure where it goes, but it’ll end up some place with celery and carrots and tomatoes,” he said.
It has taken several days, most of it in delivery trucks, but a plastic bottle like the one we bought in Washington has become a salad tray in North Carolina.
Dozens of workers. Hundreds of kilometers. And tons of plastic. All pieces of a waste industry that seems to waste as little as possible.
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    Arash Arabasadi

    Arash Arabasadi is an award-winning multimedia journalist with a decade of experience shooting, producing, writing and editing. He has reported from conflicts in Iraq, Egypt, the Persian Gulf and Ukraine, as well as domestically in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland. Arash has also been a guest lecturer at Howard University, Hampton University, Georgetown University, and his alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife Ashley and their two dogs.

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