Introduction: Making Blocks Out of HDPE Milk Jugs

Picture of Making Blocks Out of HDPE Milk Jugs

  This is a brief explanation of the process that I have used to reuse one gallon HDPE ( recycling #2) milk jugs. There are plenty of FAQs documenting HDPE sheet welding for fabric and vacuum forming sheet stock, but I couldn't find anything on forming solid blocks. I was looking for an inexpensive material to use for test blocks that I could put on the CNC machine that would not abuse the router bits.

The process is quite simple. Cut up the bottles, stew them in really hot canola oil on the stove in a pot, and then take the hot plastic and press it into a form to cool. Please note that melting some plastics can release toxic fumes. I have had no issues with HDPE, however I am not a chemist and cannot comment on the health risks of this process.

The pieces of cut up bottle can be any size that fit in the pot. I washed the bottles and removed the labels before cutting. Pouring a small amount of near boiling water into the bottle and swishing it around will help release the glue on the labels. Otherwise the labels tend to tear.

Most any cooking oil will work, and you don't need too much. I just put a couple of inches in the bottom of the pot. Canola oil is inexpensive and has a smoke point of over 400 F (204 C). The melting point of HDPE is in the mid 200 F range but the "extrusion" temperature range is 350 - 500 F. I uses oil heated on my stove top to a little over 350. Just make sure that the bottle pieces are dry or the water will cause oil to pop out of the pot. I used a candy thermometer to keep track of the temperature.

When heated the plastic will not flow. At best I get a really hot clear gooey ball. When melted, as you can see in the images, the plastic is clear. I have found that the colored HDPE used in detergent bottles and other containers does not work as well as the translucent milk jugs.

The form that I used applies pressure from all sides. This is important because it will squeeze out most of the bubbles of oil that are inside the blob of hot plastic and give a better starting point for milling the blocks. I drop the blob in the middle of the form and then press the top on with the two C clamps. Then I insert the two end blocks and clamp them together. The material holds heat for a long time. I left the block in the form for 15 min. and when I took it out it was still to hot to hold. The form I used was plywood that I had lightly oiled with the canola oil. The residual oil in the pot will get really thick when cool from what I assumed was some of the dissolved HDPE, however it does clear up when heated and can be reused. I'm not sure how many times you can reuse the oil. I assume that this type of remelting does weaken the material over time, but the small blocks that I made cannot be bent by hand at all. I have also shown a block of plastic that I formed in a muffin tin and cut in half to show the consistency of the reformed material.

Once the blocks were cool and washed I ran them through a joiner and a planer to clean up the dimensions. The blocks machine easily with all woodworking tools and can be carved with a knife without difficulty. The HDPE has a very waxy feel to it.  It will weep a little oil over time because of tiny fissures in the plastic that hold small amounts off fluid.

I also tested a block on the CNC router and had excellent results. 


ArcAiN6 (author)2017-04-13

Just out of curiosity, and maybe it's just my thinking out loud here..
you tried shredding the milk jugs, you know, putting it through a paper
shredder? Seems to reason, if you could increase the surface area by
decreasing the size of your parts, you would get a better result.. It
also, in my mind, seems like the best approach, would be to granulate
the plastic, i.e. shred it so fine as to almost powder it, then, instead
of submersing it in a solution that may be more headache than it's
worth, use a dry method, i.e. throwing it in a pressure vessel like a
pressure cooker. Once at temperature, you can vent the vessel, and
recover your product, without the added expense / mess / waste.

I would however, HIGHLY recommend doing any melting of plastics outdoors. Plastics can give off some extremely nasty chemicals.

psyanideuck (author)2017-03-13

The canola oil probably acts like that because some of the HDPE is converted into paraffin wax which is soluble in canola oil. HDPE isn't lipid soluble.

yomero (author)2012-05-07

could this work with PET?

slarti.fartfast (author)yomero2016-04-09

PET melts non-toxically, but has a much higher melting point, making it difficult to use . Polypropylene is very similar to HDPE though, with if anything a slightly lower melting point.

I'm a little tardy to the party but I would really recommend NOT doing anything that could result in the thermal decomposition of polypropylene indoors. It produces aldehydes and carboxylic acids.

yomero (author)slarti.fartfast2016-04-09


mfoster (author)yomero2012-05-07

I really don't know. HDPE is really easy to work with. PET I think requires higher temperature and might not react well to the oil. I have seen instructions on extruding PET into injection molds, but it is a more complicated process.

yomero (author)mfoster2012-05-07

cool, thanks!

pops3 (author)2016-02-06

Using outdoor, does sunlight degrade the plastic as it might a milk jug...


funny1048 (author)pops32016-02-22

any type of plastic will degrade in sunlight if its exposed to it long enough without uv protection however only a very thin layer on the surface of the plastic will degrade since the sunlight radiation cant travel very far through the plastic therefore it will definetely not degrade to the extent of a milk jug and it will be many years before you notice any kind of degradation and even then it will only be on the surface and therefore wouldnt be a big problem. and yes this plastic is definetely paintable even with spray paint

pops3 (author)funny10482016-02-23

Thanks, just looking at the possibilities of using a flat piece of plastic outdoor instead of cutting something out of wood or plywood.

funny1048 (author)pops32016-03-01

yeah this stuff is definetely awesome and works as well as wood infact it is actually stronger than wood and doesnt rot

The-Red-Knight005 (author)2014-01-07

great instructable!
is it resistant cause i want to make a slingshot out of HDPE would work ??

HDPE 2 And making a slingshot

How To Make A Slingshot Out Of HDPE

I'm not sure what you mean by 'resistant', however I don't think that it would be suitable for any part of a slingshot. The oil in the process will leave small voids that will weaken the plastic.

ok thank you

hobotraveler (author)2015-09-16

I would request someone do this using solar, and no oil.

vgm106 (author)2014-05-25

I am debating with thickness of HDPE that I need to get. What is the minimum thickness should I get so that HDPE sheet is rigid (Eg. like a writing pad as opposed to milk jug quality)? Will it be thin enough to cut and snap with a utility knife? I just don't have the space for power tools.

Udon (author)vgm1062015-07-04

If I think of writing pad bases or clipboards, something like 0.6mm or a bit more comes to mind. 1cm would be a bit ridonkulous, but I can't think anything less than 0.5 would be solid enough.

funny1048 (author)Udon2015-07-29

this plastic is extremely strong much stronger than wood for its size i made a sheet only 3 or 4 mm thick and about 10 inches long and i could barely bend it at all this would be perfect for clipboards

funny1048 (author)funny10482015-07-29

in order to make a sheet of it i simply took a square pan put it in the oven put four objects in the corner 4 mm tall and dumped in the milk jug plastic after that i put another bowl on top with a heavy piece of metal on top and this will give you a perfectly flat piece of plastic without any wrinkles because you are not rapidly cooling the hdpe down in a cold mold which would cause wrinkles

funny1048 (author)2015-07-10

i have melted a lot of hdpe and from experience hdpe will melt evenly without any oil needed. i melted the hdpe milk jug scraps in an oven and as soon as they turned clear i immediantly removed them from the heat and put them in a mold. as long as you keep your eye on it and remove it as soon as all the plastic is clear you should have no yellowing or discoloring of the plastic in fact the color of the plastic that i melted was indistingiushable from a store brought sheet of hdpe. if you do it without oil make sure you heat it at 320-340 degrees that way the plastic will be perfectly white without any degration.

funny1048 (author)funny10482015-07-11

and keep in mind not all hdpe is the same for example detergent bottles are copolymer and milk jugs are homopolymer which will effect the melt viscosity and the final strength of the polymer. milk jug plastic is pure hdpe which would mean its slightly stronger than detergent bottle plastic and milk jugs melt easier because of it not being copolymerized with anything

arvevans (author)2014-08-04

The oil provides even heat conduction to all the plastic, making it easier to get a consistent melt.

Udon (author)arvevans2015-07-04

I would think the oil would not only be faster, but more energy efficient - the thought of doing any considerable amount of plastic in a toaster oven would give me a headache considering the power bill at the end of the month.

But the African method sounds interesting, where quite often there is neither gas nor electricity.

Mr FishingR (author)2015-04-10

Thanks for the instructable.

I have been melting blocks of LDPE to be turned down to make endcaps. If you could find a cheap source of ldpe you could just cast you block up. Some black irigation pipe is LDPE. Maybe LDPE and HDPE could be blended/ mixed in chunks?

rick.leasure (author)Mr FishingR2015-04-15

I like your lathe!

taur561 (author)2014-11-26

This method is fantastic . I have successfully melted plastic bags and colored plastic containers . They mix well in the softened state and bond as one piece under pressure which also expresses the oil at the same time . I recommend this for anyone experimenting with plastic molding or making of single parts . Wish I could show you guys the colors achieved by blending clear plastic bags with other colors . I think this would make really cool teens fashion accessories .

arvevans (author)2014-08-04

Press the blob between a pair of boards, using parchment paper to keep it from sticking to the boards. Add small metal nuts or wooden blocks as spacers between the boards to control thickness. Woodworking clamps hold the boards together while your blob cools. HDPE contracts as it cools, expect that to happen.

mfoster (author)2014-05-26

1/8 inch should be stiff enough and you cold cut it with a utility knife. I'm not sure how you would press out sheets. I think that the commercial process for thin sheet forming is rolling. I don't think that you could accurately press 1/8 sheet in a mold.

mfoster (author)2014-03-08

I tried directly heating the HDPE in a toaster in forms in the hope that it would slump into the forms. It has been my experience that the HDPE does not flow easily when melted. I can't imagine that one could get it hot enough to flow by gravity alone without it catching fire or browning from hot spots. I think that most industrial processes involving HPDE use pressurized extrusion. My tests in the toaster oven produced unacceptable results.

mikefromspace (author)mfoster2014-03-09

Ahh yes, but this is because the air is not hot enough and the metal is too hot. A convection oven would yield far different results, as would the very slow rise in heat to about 270F; since the heating coils will heat the plate up to 400F in 2 minutes even if you're set to 200F.
I did this with a convection oven in a pyrex bowl ontop a metal plate and she made a wonderful little ufo shaped blob.

mfoster (author)mikefromspace2014-03-09

True. Today I set my little convection toaster on 400F, sliced up a milk jug and put it in a pyrex measuring cup. It took a little while to get it all to melt, but it slumped into a blob without and browning. I though that it might be hard to get it out, but when I cooled the container with cold water the shrinkage pulled it away from the sides. It still has some air pockets in it, but this certainly is a cleaner process. You should write up your process and submit a new instructable. Thanks for the insight.

Dark Solar (author)mfoster2014-04-10

tried the the toaster oven & pyrex trick with with fair success. managed to eliminate almost all air bubbles (also made some very nice foam a few times) by placing hot dish on rack in vacuum-modded pressure cooker and pulling partial decompression, then returning to oven for a few minutes.

mikefromspace (author)2014-03-08

hdpe melting point is exactly 266F degrees (130 celcius). 10 to 15 degrees beyond this should be all you need.

josh.swinehart (author)2013-10-08

This is a great project and I appreciate you sharing it. I am considering this as a source of raw materials for the production of rehabilitation equipment in developing nations. Do you (or any one else) have any idea if it would work just as well to use motor oil instead of food oil. Oil in the plastic is not a problem as it will simply make the plastic parts self-lubricating. Thanks again.

mfoster (author)josh.swinehart2013-10-10

I would bet that motor oil would work just as well. The trick is to have a good press to form the blocks and squeeze out as much oil as possible.

josh.swinehart (author)mfoster2013-10-12

I was thinking about a press similar to this one.  I could press blocks and then shape/machine them or I may be able to press the plastic into molds to pre-shape individual parts. I have some ideas about forming prosthetic feet and knees that I may get to try out in the next few weeks. I am looking around for parts and things now.

bruce5000 (author)2013-07-27

can anyone tell me a way to color these ( hdpe )?

bruce5000 (author)2013-07-21

mfoster? im working on make some of you,r ( HDPE) now checking around for (delrin)
these is what im makeing would i be beter with (delrin) for aknife sharpening jig ?
thank,s keep these good ideas comeing

bruce5000 (author)2013-07-18

can you tell me about how it will hold up to wear like if the plastic is rubbed aginst wood

mfoster (author)bruce50002013-07-19

It depends on the pressure. I think that it would be fine for a drawer slide, but it is probably much too soft for a bearing. Delrin or one of the other hard plastics would be more suitable.

rimar2000 (author)2013-07-12

Very useful info, thanks for sharing it. I suppose you can use this procedure with bottle caps too, they are an interesting source of plastic.

Did you try with PET?

mfoster (author)rimar20002013-07-19

I have not tried it with PET. What I did find is that colored plastic, HDPE from laundry detergent bottles, and other colored HDPE did not not really melt or blend well. Probably due to the additives.

larrywalton (author)2013-05-22

great instructable! i see that there's another one here that explains how to make carving wax often used in CNC work. apparently it's nothing more than paraffin wax plus as much as 25% HDPE, only much more expensive. melting them together works really great -- just substitute the melted the candle wax for the oil.

Jack Daniels (author)2013-02-06

why not use one of those silicone bread molds that are rated for 600F or higher cut the bottles up into small bits and bake them in the oven at 350F wouldn't that give you the same result and no messy oil to deal with?

mfoster (author)Jack Daniels2013-02-06

I had tried to do this in a metal bread mold with really poor results. The problem seems to be that the heating elements in the stove radiate a much higher heat to get the oven up to temperature. The result is that the bits on the top get burned and discolored while the lower parts don't really melt at all. Using either method the plastic never really pools or settles into shape by itself. It requires mechanical pressure to form the blocks.

Jack Daniels (author)mfoster2013-02-06

do a modifies pie crust method fill one pan with the plastic (again use silicone) put another stacked on top this will prevent direct exposer and fill the top one with dried beans that will give you the mechanical pressure

chuckmeister (author)2012-10-31

How slick were the blocks? I am thinking about making athletick flooring this way? Any way you can think of to make blocks less slick if yours were slick?

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