Plastics News: Solving the recycling riddle

Posted on April 28th, 2017 by plasticycle

Solving the recycling riddle

Richardson

Mark Richardson was working in academia when he originally joined the Society of Plastics Engineers, on a mission to develop a stronger workforce pipeline for the plastics industry.

But it wasn’t a matter of simply generating more workforce, said Richardson, now chief technology officer at Series One, a Detroit-area engineering consulting firm. He was looking for “the right kind” of workforce.

“There were people that were coming out of programs that were heavily focused on polymer science, maybe Ph.D. or master’s degree programs, and the grassroots manufacturing that was trying to happen in the United States just wasn’t being served well by that educational model,” he said. “I’m not saying that that’s not necessary — because we absolutely need materials engineers, polymer engineers — but we also need polymer professionals who are capable of running equipment, optimizing processes and making real-time products on the shop floor. And that’s the component that was by-and-large missing.”

With support he found from the SPE network, Richardson led a program at Kettering University in Flint, Mich., intended to address the need for more engineers with plastics expertise. He encouraged students to tap into the SPE network themselves, noting the value of making those connections early.

“The plastics industry is a huge business and a very small world,” he said.

And while access to adequate workforce is an ongoing challenge, Richardson also sees sustainability as a critical issue for the industry.

Part of the work done at Richardson’s Kettering lab was related to finding ways to recycle plastics that lacked a clear resource management system. He continues that work at Series One, which joined the Plastics Industry Association and is working with member companies on recycling projects involving end-of-life vehicles and plastic films.

The aim of the projects is to generate real data about how to recycle and reuse the materials.

“There’s sort of this disconnect between the people that understand and use plastics in the industry — the engineering and development side — and the people who are actually taking away these recycled materials and trying to manage the waste streams,” Richardson said. “We saw the opportunity … to try and choose some very specific material streams and try and demystify them and understand how they can be processed — and, once they are processed, what those properties really look like.”

His hope is that by making available a library of information on the materials, companies will able to design new products in the future that are specifically designed to use recycled material streams.

Involving academia and industry associations in a project creates a sort of “neutral ground” that makes it easier for different parts of value chain and even competitors to work together, Richardson said.

“Companies don’t necessarily know how to get on board with a project like this,” he said. “When you have a very niche place in the value chain, and you know your business and you know what needs to happen for your part of the business, but you don’t know what happens before and after you very well, or you don’t have good penetration into those areas, then how do you put together a project like this?”

Ultimately, the goal is not only to find a way to effectively recycle vehicle parts and films, but also figure out how to manage any material stream that isn’t currently being efficiently managed.

Richardson sees the need for plastics only growing in coming years.

“Lightweighting initiatives in the auto industry, medical devices, clothing, you name it — the amount of new plastic products that are being generated and the demand for the types of performance criteria for products is driving us more toward plastics than ever before,” he said.

And consumer awareness of sustainability issues is growing, a powerful incentive for consumer products companies to tackle the recyclability issue.

“I think companies are more interested now than they have been in the past in engaging in these sustainability projects,” Richardson said. “Consumer awareness is obviously very high around recycling, and if you want to give your consumers what they’re asking for — which is sustainable products and recyclability within companies and zero waste-to-landfill — then eventually you have to get on board with figuring out how you’re going to do it.”

That starts with getting the word out that the products can be recycled, and how. A recyclable plastic water bottle can still end up in a landfill without a clear and established recycling system.

“We need to figure out — not as a company, not as a country, but as a planet at large — we need to figure out how to effectively recycle and reuse these materials,” he said. “Because there’s no reason why they can’t be recycled and reused.”

Richardson’s mission

Mark Richardson was working in academia when he originally joined the Society of Plastics Engineers, on a mission to develop a workforce pipeline of engineers with plastics expertise.

Leading a program

With support from SPE, Richardson led a program at Kettering University in Flint, Mich., where he encouraged students to tap into the SPE network themselves.

Addressing a sustainability problem in the industry

Richardson sees sustainability as a critical issue for the industry.

He continues that work at Series One, which joined the Plastics Industry Association and is working with member companies on recycling projects involving end-of-life vehicles and plastic films.

The aim of the projects is to generate real data about how to recycle and reuse the materials.

‘Lightweighting initiatives in the auto industry, medical devices, clothing, you name it — the amount of new plastic products that are being generated and the demand for the types of performance criteria for products is driving us more toward plastics than ever before.’

Mark Richardson, Kettering University

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