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Boise State students experiment in low-energy recycling, create plastic-like materials

Now the Bronco students are ready to take some of these methods up to mass production, as the concern over plastic waste grows.

BOISE, Idaho — Boise State University students are experimenting in new and innovative ways to recycle plastics while also making plastics of their own.

Students in the Material Science and Engineering program participate in ways to recycle contents inside orange bags seen throughout the Treasure Valley, as part of Boise's Hefty Energy Bag program. 

Most of the orange bags are sent to a company in Utah to be used as fuel for concrete, but others are being given to Boise State students.

"We are not limited by the amount of plastic trash we have at the moment," Professor of Material Science and Engineering at Boise State University, Scott Phillips, said.

According to Phillips, there is a stock room full of orange bag materials just waiting to be recycled.

"We take those orange bags and we are purposefully not taking anything out of them -- meaning that we use everything in the orange bag and so we combine all of that together,” Phillips said.

The orange bags are put into a grinder that creates small bits of plastics, which are then placed into a square mold.

"The two big metal pieces are both hot and then we put some pressure on it and it compresses everything down while it heats up the plastic,” Phillips said.

After the plastic squares are created, they are tested for their durability, but not much happens with them after that, at least for now.

“What I would love is to make boards," Phillips said. "Make different types of boards, give them to construction management students who like to build things and have them build things like trashcans on campus, benches on campus. I think dorm room furniture could be made from these kinds of things and at the end of the day, when they are no longer needed, we can shred them up and put them right back into the process."

Another experiment that Phillips is teaching his students, is how to create their own kind of plastics. In this method, students use natural compounds that can be reused, without deteriorating by using a low energy process.

"We are actually looking at abundant natural compounds as the starting materials -- ones that are used in the food industry a lot and the fragrance industry, so they are nontoxic, to begin with," Phillips said.

Then, through a cooling method, Bronco students create polymers and make enough of them that a solid is formed to create a plastic-like material. Phillips is still working on perfecting this process.

The third process that students are working on is creating plastics by using sugar and some different additives.  

"We are saying can we replace certain types of plastics with our own composite material that we are making with sugar?" Phillips said. "And the answer is basically, I think yes."

Phillips said they can make anything from chess pieces to plastic cups, forks, and knives. Once they are used, they can either be recycled or thrown into the compost.

“This, you can stick in the ground if you want," Phillips said. "It’s natural stuff and it just gets decomposed and turns out we can also recycle it, so we can just grind this up and put it right back into the process."

Now, Phillips and his Boise State students are ready to take some of these methods up to mass production, as the concern over plastic waste grows.  

"So while I don't think that one of these products is going to be the end-all be-all solution to all of our plastics problems, it’s fascinating to see the diverse amount of solutions that are out there and I think that we can be a big part of that,” Graduate Research Assistant in the Science and Engineering Department, Terra Miller-Cassman, said.  

"We are trying to replace all types of plastic and so I see a future where we have one type of plastic that has a lot of different uses and is easily recyclable,” Kyle Nogales, a Material Science Student said.

Phillips said his department has reached a point where they have sorted out the science of the processes and the fundamentals and are ready to scale up.

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