Texas A&M Engineering SoundBytes

Ask an Engineer: What's wrong with recycling? (Featuring Dr. Astrid Layton)

March 03, 2020 Texas A&M Podcast Network Season 1 Episode 28
Texas A&M Engineering SoundBytes
Ask an Engineer: What's wrong with recycling? (Featuring Dr. Astrid Layton)
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

On this episode of Ask an Engineer, the SoundBytes team asks Dr. Astrid Layton about the challenges facing recycling.

Steve:   0:00
For many here in the United States and around the world, recycling has become a common part of our lives. But with recent changes, the system is facing challenges and uncertainty. So what's wrong with recycling? Let's ask an engineer.  

Steve:   0:24
Howdy and welcome to SoundBytes. Thanks for joining us. I'm Steve Kuhlmann and with me today is Hannah Conrad.

Hannah:   0:32
Hi there.  

Steve:   0:33
And Jenn Reiley.

Jenn:   0:34
Howdy, Ags.

Steve:   0:35
And this week, we're asking what's wrong with recycling?

Hannah:   0:40
Reduce, reuse and recycle, right?

Steve:   0:42

Jenn:   0:43
Yeah, but what is that? Are you saying that recycling is broken? Because I'm confused.

Steve:   0:49
It's definitely had better days.

Jenn:   0:51
OK, now I'm worried.  

Hannah:   0:53
Tell us more.

Steve:   0:55
So in 2018 China passed the National Sword Policy that changed how recycling is processed worldwide. Now, up until that point, over the last 25 years, they'd handled nearly half of the world's recyclable waste. Not to mention 70% of plastics collected by recycling in the U. S. That's a lot.

Hannah:   1:19
That's massive.  

Jenn:   1:20
Yeah. What? So why did they - what was the law? It stopped taking that plastic in?  

Steve:   1:27

Jenn:   1:28
Why did they do that?  

Steve:   1:29
Yeah, so what happened was we recycled poorly. Okay. We moved from the old system which was separate everything to what they call a single-stream approach. And the reason why that was a problem is because we did it poorly. We left materials that really just gummed up the machines and ended up ruining entire batches of recycling.

Hannah:   1:55
Wow. So, like, food and stuff like that?  

Steve:   1:57

Jenn:   1:58
It's like basically, they weren't clean essentially when they went in.  

Steve:   2:01

Jenn:   2:01

Steve:   2:01
Yeah. So now there's nowhere for a lot of those items to go, especially plastics and to a lesser extent, paper.

Jenn:   2:12
Wow, I didn't actually know that we sent a lot of it over - not saying the United States does, I guess, but I'm assuming they also sent a lot over to China, but just that it was being sent from your home to a different country. I was definitely expecting it to be still within the United States.  

Hannah:   2:29
Think about how much like single-use plastic is being just used on a daily.

Jenn:   2:34
You have Ziploc bags, you've got just any kind of wrapper, basically, that's considered single-use.

Steve:   2:40
So, at this point, we've got to figure out something else to do.

Jenn:   2:45
So I'm guessing that the reason you're bringing this up is because we have someone in Texas A&M engineering that is working on this?  

Steve:   2:51
You'd be right.  

Jenn:   2:52

Steve:   2:53
So, Dr. Astrid Layton from the J. Mike Walker '66 Department of Mechanical Engineering was working with one of her graduate students to take an aspect of her research, which takes a bio-inspired approach to engineering design, a lot of times using a food web as a model, and applying that to systems in this case, the waste management system.

Hannah:   3:22
So, Dr. Layton, what's wrong with recycling?  

Dr. Layton:   3:26
So recycling in the U.S. right now is a pretty big mess. And I had a master's student who recently graduated and she was interested in looking at the recycling network of the U. S. And the overall waste network in the U. S. as if it was an ecosystem. So my lab, we do research on bio-inspired system design and this seemed like a great opportunity, considering that China had just basically banned all recycling imports from the U. S. My student ended up finding out that we were missing a key component that is very common in ecosystems. We're missing this in our waste network in the U. S. and this is essentially the functional group from ecosystems called detritivores or decomposers. These are different kinds of species in nature that are able to process and break down very low-quality materials into something that is able to be used by plants and trees, things like this. So this detritivore/decomposer functional group in nature was missing in our waste network in the U. S. We don't do a very good job in the U. S. reusing materials. There are a lot of materials that get recycled that just get broken down into a raw material again rather than reuse as is. So you know, we found this huge gap in the network where if we can figure out a way to fill this in, you know, we could make our systems a lot better.  

Jenn:   5:01
That was really interesting just to kind of hear her touch on what we've talked about, but at the same time, that whole idea of looking at it from the ecosystem perspective and actually finding like species of animals that kind of serve that role in nature, that we don't have that kind of connecting the dots in an industrial perspective to a nature perspective.  

Hannah:   5:21
I also thought it was really interesting that she stressed the need to not just recycle that kind of finish those three R's of reduce and reuse.

Steve:   5:29
It's definitely something that I think we forget about. It's so easy to just use a reusable bottle.

Jenn:   5:36
Right. And you see, the price difference these days isn't that much different either. Like, if you think about overtime like using a reusable water bottle is going to save you money in the long term, so might as well invest now. And there's actually a couple of ongoing efforts here at Texas A&M here on campus to help with collecting those kinds of plastics that you usually can't put any recycling bin at home. And so we work with a company called Trex, which is based out of Virginia. And so what they do is they actually build composite deck furniture and decking, using 95% recycled wood and plastic film.  

Steve:   6:07
Very cool.

Jenn:   0:00
And so again, it's like that plastic. So maybe, like Ziploc bags or the grocery bags and the things you can't usually recycle normally. And so we have - Texas A&M Engineering and Residence Life both have campaigns going, and there's a challenge that's actually been put forward, that if we collect 500 lbs of this plastic film, they will make a bench, and then that bench comes back to campus. And so if you're around and you're interested in kind of giving some of these materials, if you go to just search "Trex recycling TAMU" and the very first option will be the Residence Life page, which does give a list of the full options of different kinds of plastic films you can give and for engineering specifically, you can drop off those things in Wisenbaker 301 (which) is definitely going to be our headquarters for that. It'll be very interesting to see how much we actually are able to collect.  

Steve:   6:56
Yeah. And then, just in general, if you have any questions, just find out what your local recycling code is, what's accepted, what's not accepted. just to make sure that you know you're doing your part to make everything work the way it's supposed to.

Steve:   7:12
This was a very brief window into some of the challenges facing recycling right now and by no means a full view of everything that's happening. But maybe it will inspire you to learn more or even pursue research of your own and how we can improve the system.  

Hannah:   7:33
Thanks for tuning in, and we'll see you next week where we talked to Dr. Layton at further length about some of her research. Until in we're sounding off. Thanks and Gig 'em.  

Jenn:   7:42
Thanks and Gig 'em.

Steve:   7:43
Thanks and Gig 'em.  

Hannah:   7:44
Thanks for tuning into SoundBytes, the podcast of the College of Engineering at Texas A&M University. Please note the views and opinions expressed in this podcast belong to the hosts and guests and do not necessarily represent the policies and position of the Texas A&M University System.

Dr. Layton interview