To study and improve plastics recycling, New York State turns to UB RENEW Institute

Assorted plastic with recycling symbol.

Multidisciplinary UB research group awarded nearly $2 million from Department of Environmental Conservation to assess plastic recycling industry, educate public

Release Date: September 9, 2020

Amit Goyal stands in front of solar panels.
“The project is well-aligned with RENEW’s mission to bring together teams of multidisciplinary faculty to focus on complex issues related to energy and the environment. ”
Amit Goyal, director
University at Buffalo RENEW Institute

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Giant garbage patches in the oceans. Confusion over what is and what is not recyclable. Microplastics invading our water supplies and wildlife.

These are just some of the problems associated with society’s growing use of plastics.

To help address these issues, the University at Buffalo RENEW Institute has been working on an ambitious multidisciplinary study of the plastics recycling industry, which was thrown into disarray after China curtailed its waste importing business in 2018.

The work, funded by a $1.9 million grant from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), also calls for developing policy options for the state and leading education and public outreach efforts with the goal of helping to stimulate the state’s regenerative economy while reducing pollution.

“The project is well-aligned with RENEW’s mission to bring together teams of multidisciplinary faculty to focus on complex issues related to energy and the environment. RENEW’s overall goal to enable a regenerative economy includes improving recycling of all materials,” says RENEW Institute Director and SUNY Distinguished Professor Amit Goyal, who is also the project’s director.

DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said: “Today’s announcement by Governor Cuomo and our partnership with SUNY schools will support exciting work with the University at Buffalo’s RENEW Institute, whose research will bring transformative change to the recycling stream by reducing contaminants. This partnership will evaluate sorting technologies and assess potential costs and benefits to improving recycling infrastructure with a focus on plastics, leading to greater efficiencies and less waste that will protect the environment and benefit the economy. Recycling right is the key to keeping contamination down and the quality of recyclables high and the RENEW Institute’s research on recycling outreach and education supports that effort.”

Plastic recycling is an alternative to conventional waste disposal. It can save materials and help lower greenhouse gas emissions, as well as reduce energy usage and water pollution. However, for recycling to be truly effective, people and businesses must improve the way materials are recycled and reduce contamination, says Goyal.

This is proving to be complicated. Responding to consumer demands, large consumer goods companies have pledged to use more recycled content in their packaging.

The rules about what plastic items are, and what items are not, acceptable for recycling have also changed, creating confusion. Moreover, an increasing supply of virgin plastic resins, produced using oil and shale gas, competes with recycled plastics.

This complex situation forms the backdrop for UB-led project.  

The market for plastic recyclables

China’s 2018 ban on importing recycled plastics created a sudden surge in the supply of recycled plastics available for U.S. plastics recyclers.

This led to a dramatic decline in the prices paid for recycled plastics, a potential shortfall in domestic capacity to sort and recycle plastics, diversion of plastics to landfills and incinerators, and a deterioration in the profitability of recyclables collection.

With this scenario in mind, researchers are:

  • Assessing the impact of China’s ban on New York State’s plastics recycling industry.
  • Examining U.S. capacity for processing plastic recyclables; identify the need for more processing capacity.
  • Evaluating current and potential markets for recyclable plastics; examine ways to improve the market for plastic recyclables; and suggest market development opportunities in New York State.
  • Assessing the contamination (materials placed in recycling streams that are not recyclable) of plastic recyclables; assess how plastic contaminates other recyclable streams; and recommend ways to reduce contamination.
  • Examining the costs involved for a successful processing facility; evaluate the economic feasibility of a processing system, such as conversion to oil or fuel.
  • Will recommend policy options for New York State and suggest further work.

This multidisciplinary team includes co-investigators Aditya Vedantam, assistant professor in the Department of Operations Management and Strategy in the UB School of Management; John Atkinson, associate professor in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering, and Paschalis Alexandridis, UB Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, both in the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; Alan Rae, director of UB’s Center of Excellence in Materials Informatics; and Michael Shelly, RENEW environmental economist and research assistant professor in UB RENEW.

Graduate students working on the project include: Khadija Ajmal in the School of Management, and Austin Izzio, Cesar Lubongo and Jenna Meert, all in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Education and outreach

The second part of the project focuses on using human behavioral science and outreach/education initiatives to decrease contamination and improve recycling in New York State.

Up to 30% of the material collected for recycling at the curbside consists of contaminants that have to be separated out and disposed of in landfills or incinerators, resulting in unnecessary costs. One cause of this high level of contaminants is believed to be ignorance of what is and what isn’t recyclable among the population.

By conducting surveys, UB researchers will assess New York State residents’ and UB students’ knowledge about recycling. The team is researching:

  • “Wish-cycling,” in which people place items into recycling streams with the uncertain hope that they can be recycled.
  • Existing recycling practices.
  • Key demographic and psychographic variables that influence attitudes and behavioral intentions toward recycling.
  • Effective information channels (traditional media, social media, interpersonal channels, other cues to action) to share campaign materials.

This sub-project team is also multidisciplinary and includes co-investigators Janet Yang, associate professor in the Department of Communication, College of Arts of Sciences, Susan Clark, assistant professor in the Department of Environment and Sustainability, College of Arts of Sciences, Erin Moscati, sustainability education manager, Office of Sustainability and Michael Shelly, RENEW environmental economist and research assistant professor in UB RENEW.

Graduate students involved in the project are Veronica Liu from the Department of Communication, Grace DeSantis from UB’s Office of Sustainability, and Sadie Kratt from the College of Arts and Sciences.

The UB RENEW Institute harnesses the expertise of more than 100 faculty members from seven schools and colleges at UB. In addition to environmental issues, it also tackles energy and water issues, with a focus on developing and coordinating innovative research, education and outreach programs. Further information can be found the following website:

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