Reinventing Recycling

A multidisciplinary team of UB researchers is developing high-tech tools and community outreach efforts to give the environment a brighter outlook.

plastic bottles floating in water.

Plastic pollution is among the world’s most pressing environmental issues, threatening drinking water, wildlife, food supplies and more.

To address this multifaceted problem, researchers at the University at Buffalo are developing a novel set of tools that aim to reduce plastic waste and decrease the need for virgin plastic. The project, supported by a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, also includes public outreach strategies, such as recruiting students underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

Saving the planet through sorting and solvents

The research side of the project focuses on a robotic system that relies on artificial intelligence to autonomously improve sorting, and environmentally responsible solvents and new chemistries that break down plastics to make them easier to reuse.

The robotic system under development will combine novel sensor technology that can register the molecular signature of each piece of plastic in real time, and machine learning that can identify the specific type of plastic. By integrating this system with existing technologies, the multidisciplinary team aims to create an advanced mixed-waste sorting process that also captures and reuses other materials often found in plastic recycling streams, such as contaminants, that make recycling difficult and expensive.

Additionally, the team is investigating how to use environmentally responsible solvents to recover plastics from contaminated recycling streams. Different solvents could either separate the plastic from additives or impurities, rendering it suitable for reuse in new products, or break down plastic molecules to upcycle into valuable new raw materials.

Research meets outreach

“Not only is this work critically important to our planet, it also contributes to the country’s advanced manufacturing capabilities,” says Paschalis Alexandridis, UB Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, and the project’s lead. Recapturing value from end-of-life plastic materials will help corporations meet consumer demand and their own commitments, says Alexandridis. It will also push the U.S. and other nations toward finally achieving the goal of a circular economy for plastics.

Equally important to the project’s research, he adds, is the public outreach.

The team is designing a broad range of activities to recruit a diverse group of undergraduate students from local colleges who can participate in research and share knowledge with local communities. Additional outreach on the importance of recycling is planned for middle and high school students, as well as the public.