As cities such as Flagstaff struggle to keep plastics out of the landfill, second-year Sustainable Communities graduate student Tyler Linner has been diving in with a recycling final project. But instead of looking for ways to get more waste into the blue bin, he is building a DIY recycling workshop in his garage.
Until recently a large portion of the world’s plastic waste was shipped to China for recycling. Since 1992, 45% of global plastic waste was exported there until the Chinese government grew tired of dirty recycling imports, effectively banning almost all plastic recycling imports in January 2018’s National Sword Policy. This threw most global recycling markets out of balance, with plastic waste values plummeting.
Like those in many American cities, Flagstaff, Arizona’s Material Recovery Facility (MRF) run by Norton Environmental Inc., has been unable to sell any #3-7 plastics since the ban, leaving everything from yogurt containers to take-out containers and Solo cups nearly devoid of value. Instead of processing and reselling these materials, Norton is now interring them in the unlined Cinder Lake landfill, nestled in the San Francisco volcanic field only 12 miles away from the pine-covered Sunset Crater National Monument.
Newly unstable commodity markets make it harder for recycling centers to sell bales of plastic waste, reducing the potential for wealth-creation in Flagstaff and most of the US. This massive volume of plastic being trashed also throws away the enormous potential utility and embedded energy of all that plastic.
On the other hand, Tyler noticed that Americans’ massive resource consumption offers an opportunity to fulfill needs within our community while reducing waste. Flagstaff’s recycling rate is about half that of the rest of the nation, but now many items previously recycled in China could be worked by up-and-coming local plastic wrights like himself. Keeping Arizona money within Arizona, he can turn a former waste stream directly into marketable products.
The obvious way to reduce plastic pollution is to work at all levels of government and industry to reduce plastic production and consumption. Ignoring plastic products, plastic packaging alone (which is usually hard to recycle) accounts for around five percent of total American solid waste generation according to the EPA. Tyler stresses that while we must reduce this enormous amount of plastic we buy and produce, we will have to process the waste regardless. While we’re at it, he says, we may as well make some money.
Enter Precious Plastic, a Dutch non-profit which offers open-source plans for plastic recycling machines and techniques. These machines allow plastic wrights to build a wide variety of products dependent mostly on the creativity of their mold-making. This allows normal people to recycle plastic at a small fraction of the cost of industrial machines, but that cost can still be prohibitive to many. An assembled shredder, for instance, costs a whopping $830 without a motor, or $2,000 ready-to-run. A basic two-machine shop plus one or two molds would cost over $5,000 while a full shop with all four machines and multiple molds for each could easily cost as much as a new subcompact car.
Of course, motors and tables can be scrounged from scraps, but the necessary laser-cut shredder parts kit still costs over $500, all assembly (including welding) required. Some individuals have built the shredding machine partially or fully from cheaper mild steel, but higher maintenance requirements like WD-40 spraying procedures can be inconvenient.
Tyler began to wonder: can certain parts of the shredder be made of recycled plastic using Precious Plastic machines themselves? Using a ready-to-run shredder as well as an oven, he intends to find out. Hopefully, this research can lead the way for a better-integrated and less environmentally impactful shredder. Using existing materials instead of mining and refining new ones brings myriad benefits, but the most pointed in this instance might be the potential to radically lower the cost of entry for communities considering Precious Plastic workshops. If the shredder could be taken down to $500 and welding labor for a mold was cheap or free, the workshop could easily cost less than $4,000, even if the injection molder were purchased ready-made.
Labor is another factor that I believe may make Precious Plastic more viable in small or economically depressed communities. The main drawback, by popular opinion, seems to be the time required to make usable products from these machines. But, in a university context, what if the machines are run by student volunteers? If each NAU student on campus pitched in a single dollar, the university could buy six $3500 workshops, each including a plastic shredder, an injection molder, and a mold. Instead of a small business owner balancing the cost of labor with the revenue of products, these students could build things for their colleges or clubs, or to sell. One way or another the students would come out with a usable, valuable product made from the waste they previously had to pay to dispose of (though tuition). That’s a step toward self-sufficiency.
But what products would they make? For one, Tyler is also using his machines to collaborate with Snow Mountain River, Inc. (SMR), a local outdoor gear consignment shop. He is experimenting with using colorful broken sleds from the forest to make recycled, Arizona-made outdoors equipment for the store. This represents just one potential use for Precious Plastic machines in our beautiful mountain home.