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Video Transcript — Discovering A Better Way to Recycle Plastic

Scott Phillips, Professor, Materials Science and Engineering:

The process of recycling is actually really complicated. There’s so many different kinds of materials that have to be separated from one another and that’s using machines and also using a lot of manpower. And in the end, people just aren’t able to efficiently recycle or separate many of the components. So we’re trying to simplify the idea of recycling plastic waste where you don’t need to necessarily separate all of the different types of plastics from one another, which is what currently needs to be done to recycle the plastic waste. So our approach is to actually say, let’s put all of the plastic waste together and include even paper, aluminum and other types of contaminants that are in that plastic waste. Combine all of that and simplify again that process to make a new kind of plastic material.

Students are involved in the day to day research activities for this work. There’s a variety of experiments in the lab, as well as how to process the material. So it’s not just a pile of trash and actually get it to a size that we can work with and then put it together to make new kinds of materials that are in these sort of broad shapes that we’re working on at the moment. The students do that work. At the same time, they’re learning engineering. There’s components of getting sort of the engineering specs of the materials that we’re making so that we can compare them with other materials that are out there, such as wood and other kinds of building materials as an example. And so they’re learning those techniques for how to quantify a variety of important properties of materials.

Terra Miller-Cassman, Graduate Student, Materials Science and Engineering:

So my thoughts on recycling are that it’s just far too complicated and people don’t want to deal with it. And so they end up just either throwing it in the trash or putting it in the wrong bin, which then contaminates the recycling and contributes to challenges down the line for the recycling companies.

I think this research is exciting because it puts a new spin on recycling. It’s also extremely scalable, so we can take massive quantities of recycling and turn it into something that we can use, for example, boards or building products or other applications. And I think the quantity of trash and recycling that we can potentially take in and spit out a good, useful product is pretty impressive. And I think that will have a lot of applications and uses down the line. And I’m hoping that this might take a new spin on the recycling process and so people will develop other solutions using similar ideas or theories behind what we’re doing.