5000 Tons of Plastic/Year: Why we need to be more responsible with our waste.

On behalf of the Ray’cycle Team, I would like to thank all of you for contributing to this project. We are excited to announce that because of the unprecedented participation, we had to raise our goal to a much bigger number. We specifically chose 5000 as our new number symbolically to represent the amount of plastic (in tons) that ends up in the environment. According to Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, that is how much new plastic is wasted each year. This is a major problem because this material does not biodegrade and builds up over time.

Of the 8.3 billion tons of plastic that has been produced, 6.3 billion tons has become waste dispersed throughout the planet’s landfills and oceans. 

As a population, we have wasted so much plastic because it is extremely convenient to use something once and throw it away without worrying about cleaning it before or after use. This “grab and go” mentality is plaguing the planet as corporations keep up with the demands for “easy” options of packaging – especially for food. Now with the COVID-19 pandemic, single use plastic is the most sanitary option for keeping the public safe.

This is an insanely large number, an unacceptable one in my opinion. What are the implications of this? Even though it is not affecting our lives now, it is possible we will have to deal with the consequences. The state of the environment is depleting everyday due to waste. Ecosystems are unable to support as many species leading to a lack of biodiversity and extinction of many organisms. 

Why is plastic the environment’s worst enemy? There are many reasons:

  • There is an overwhelming abundance of single-use plastic being produced.
  • Plastic is lightweight so therefore it floats and can be carried by the wind. 
    • This is bad because it makes it impossible to contain plastic waste and it can easily end up polluting ecosystems.
  • Plastic can break into “microplastic” which ends up being ingested by animals and endangering species.

Plastic is a polymeric material that consists of chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms. The material is abundant, cheap, and can be melted down and reshaped with a low amount of heat. There are 7 different types of plastic, classified by resin identification codes. You can see the names and uses of these plastics in the image below.

These numbers were originally assigned in the 1980s to keep plastics separate during manufacturing and reprocessing. There is a misconception that seeing this symbol on plastic makes it automatically recyclable but that is not the case. In the higher numbered resin identification codes, there are more complexities associated with those plastics. Plastics numbers 3-7 are often turned away from many recycling centers and end up in an incinerator, landfill, or the ocean.

Not all plastic can be easily recycled for many reasons:

  • More complicated processes get expensive.
  • Melting down plastic over and over again depletes its quality/value.
  • Needs to be completely clean, chopped up, and melted.
  • Recycling bins are often contaminated when it’s food packaging.

As engineers, team Ray’cycle and I are committed to improving the world we live in. One way is by engineering a type of polymer that is biodegradable but functions identically to plastic. Another way is by working to streamline the recycling process to make it more inclusive. One thing we are doing specifically is using SSSP and SSME to recycle plastic films and bags – as recycling centers do not typically accept them. This project will test our ability to repurpose your household items that would have ended up in landfill or oceans anyway. The possibilities are endless but I believe that in the near future a solution will be found to combat this issue.

What can you do to help? I’ll tell you: think outside of reuse, reduce, recycle. Focus on refusing and repurposing. Before buying anything, think to yourself. “Do I really need this?” or “What do I already own that can fulfill my needs?” Also, attempt to repair broken objects before resorting to trashing it. Through this project, we hope to educate everyone on proper recycling techniques so that there is less waste in our world. Obviously, our current society has become dependent on plastic but I think it’s time we abandon that wasteful mindset. By taking time to learn about this, you can help combat the environmental damage done by plastic waste.


Innovating Recycling through Artificial Intelligence

After finishing a crisp disposable plastic water bottle on a hot day, tossing it into the recycling bin, and sending it on its way to the recycling plant, that very bottle proceeds to get clumped in with thousands of other various recyclables before finally arriving at the facility where it will be sorted and processed into raw material to be reused. Traditionally, once piles of recyclable material mixed with trash arrive at these “materials recovery facilities”, the process first goes through a manual step where laborers stand alongside moving conveyor belts full of this waste mix and remove the non-recyclables. The remaining recyclables are sorted into appropriate categories ranging from recycled bottles and plastic bags to metal cans, and these sorted groups are then processed into raw material from there.  

However, organizations and companies lately have begun thinking critically about the shortcomings of today’s plastic recycling process, as it must improve its speed and effectiveness to handle the increased levels of recycling in the future. Equipping machinery with artificial intelligence is one promising way to expedite the recyclable sorting process.

There is unlimited potential for software automation such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to positively impact the recycling industry in the coming years, especially because AI pattern recognition is becoming the key to today’s successful virtual world. 

Innovative AI-based sorting machines can efficiently sort groups of recyclables and remove trash through learning how to recognize properties of materials (such as color, shape, size, etc.). After an AI machine is given a testing period during which it learns how to recognize key characteristics of recyclables, it then can be used as the sole operator of recycling conveyor belts, operating at near lightning speed. As the machine uses self-learning algorithms to continuously improve its recyclable recognition, this enables production of increasingly purer recycled plastic material. 

An industry-leading robot like this has already been developed by the company Machinex, which calls its AI-driven recyclable sorter the SamurAI. This sorting robot already has been proven to be twice as efficient as current human workers (being able to sort around 70 pieces of recyclables a minute compared to the typical human laborer’s 35 pieces per min). Additionally, the SamurAI software has been tested and been taught to improve itself through pattern recognition to the extent that it has up to a 95% efficiency at correctly identifying and sorting recyclable pieces.

So what can you do alongside this exciting AI innovation to improve the recycling industry? While AI opens the door to limitless possibilities for how facilities can efficiently deal with tons of waste daily, there is still an endless necessity for people in society to pay more care into what they put in the recycling bin in the first place. The main reason for sorting in recycling facilities is due to people mixing in trash with their recyclables, but if we as a society actually commit to focusing more on keeping the recycling “clean”, then the process would allow for the purest recycled material possible. Any small contribution you make towards this cause goes a long way.


A Plastic Bottle’s Journey: Recycling is Flawed

An environmentally conscious consumer forgets her reusable water bottle one day and buys a plastic one from the vending machine. She just bought one of the one million plastic bottles used each minute. In the time it took you to read this sentence about 50,000 plastic bottles were purchased. But our hypothetical tree-hugger is comforted by the mirage of recycling. After quenching her thirst, she tosses the clean bottle into the recycling bin with the best of intentions.

Shortly after, one of her peers walks by and throws a bowling ball in the same blue pin. Seems unlikely right? But most of Mr. Bell’s recycling facilities receive a bowling ball almost every day. I realize it still seems like a dramatic example, but the next person could have just as easily tried to recycle a greasy pizza box, an uncleaned takeout container, or a plastic grocery bag causing similarly bad results. No matter how wholesome the intention, throwing random items in the recycling bin ultimately results in more damage done. It’s called wishcycling and frequently causes damage to the machinery or contaminates batches, leading to a lowering the recycling rate. According to David Biderman, executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America, 10 to 15 percent of the material sent for recycling cannot be and ends up in landfills.

Due to contamination, the plastic water bottle was sent to a landfill, despite it originally being a perfect candidate for recycling :(. The recycling rate for PET plastic bottles is only about 30 percent, so the majority of the time plastic bottles end up in the landfill, rather than getting a second chance.

But what happens to the ideal batch of recyclables? To be honest, it depends where you live. Recycling is often determined by the local governments. Some municipalities are limited by their space and financial resources, so they have to send their collections straight to the landfill. However, others, like Lycoming County’s Resource Management Services (RMS), recycle all they can, so Bucknell sends its recyclables there! In other words, Bucknell still recycles despite rumors suggesting otherwise, so if you go to school here please keep recycling 🙂 it makes a difference! But despite gems like Lycoming RMS, only nine percent of plastic gets recycled, which is just a scary statistic considering we produce 300 million tons of plastic each year.

So, what can we do to help protect Mother Earth? To have a greater impact you have to take the problem into your own hands, by focusing on the first two R’s: reduce and reuse! By reducing consumption, you would be reducing the demand for certain products and throwing less out! There are some easy ways to reduce like buying sustainably and by purchasing items that won’t quickly go out of fashion. The less plastic produced, the less that will go to waste.

You can also reuse! By using reusable silver wear, napkins, water bottles, etc. you can make a difference for the planet and your wallet. The average price of a single use plastic water bottle is $1.29, yet you can get a reusable water bottle on Amazon for less than 5 dollars. After 5 uses you would already be saving money! Plus, by reducing demand, you would help lower the production rate, creating less waste. Yay!

Recycling is not a cure all, even though we act like it can be. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t still recycle, after all nine percent is better than zero, but we can have a greater difference by focusing on reducing and reusing. By simply saying no to plastic straws or bringing your own reusable containers, we could help minimize our ever-growing pile of trash. Remember to reduce, reuse, and as a last resort recycle! We can make a difference one step at a time 🙂


Greetings from Texas

Texas. Best known for the Alamo, the barbeque, the slogan “everything is bigger in Texas” and the good city of Houston.

Being born and raised in Houston, Texas there is a lot that I grew up with. Known as the Energy Capital of the World, Houston is the current center of oil and gas industry. This also means that Houston is where petroleum-based plastics are born. I was constantly surrounded by big name companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron Phillips, DowDuPont, and many others.

Growing up, I have been able to take advantage of what the industry has to offer. For example, I attended a summer program at University of Houston that was hosted by ExxonMobil. We solved math and science problems while also enjoying activities that were related to those subjects. We made liquid nitrogen ice-cream and used solar powered ovens to make smores.  All this involvement with the math and science subjects is what brought me closer to wanting to pursue a major in engineering.

“Everything is bigger in Texas”. Especially during the pandemic, people are going out shopping to big-box and wholesale stores like Costco and Sam’s Club. Restaurants around here are selling a lot more take-out food. Everything is just going by the boat load.

Now what is going on with recycling here since the pandemic? There really isn’t much media or news sources that state that cities in Texas have shut down their recycling centers. Though some small cities in the San Antonio are have cut back on their recycling as of in June. (San Antonio Express News).

Here in Houston, it still seems like everything is going as normal. We continue to collect recyclables and put them into our recycling bin, my family has been fairly good about recycling what we can and throwing out what we cannot recycle or reuse. Being home for a couple months now, it doesn’t seem like we ever paused collecting recycling. Though their precautions are to make sure they wash their hands once done handling the recycling bin.

While looking up recycling changes on the Texas Disposal Systems site, I did find that they have some tips about keeping everyone safe during recycling and waste handling.

I cannot imagine how Covid-19 has changed the life of recycling center workers; perhaps they are taking even more extreme measures to ensure that all the workers are safe. The impact that the novel coronavirus has taken on the people of Houston has been a lot, from what I have seen this summer. We are less active, less social, and more cautious. As a consequence, more and more plastics are being used to facilitate the new normal.

I am glad that recycling centers here are still up and running though. It provides me peace of mind knowing that we aren’t just creating plastic with nowhere to go.


Covid-19 Is Not Only Attacking the Health and Wellness of Humans, But of the Planet Too

Since the global pandemic started, our society has been making strides to fight and contain the virus. We have implemented many new societal norms such as social distancing, contactless delivery and increased use of masks, gloves and hand sanitizers. While these are a necessity in order to fight the spread of COVID-19, it is causing us to lose ground in the fight for a greener planet.

Due to the stay-at-home order and social distancing policies, most restaurants around the US have shifted to a take-out routine which increases the usage of single-use packaging. Because of the concern of the virus living on surfaces, businesses like Starbucks has stopped allowing customers to use their own cups and many supermarkets have suspended the use of reusable bags for bagging groceries. While no scientific studies have definitively confirmed that new plastic packaging is safer than reusable ones, the added risk of relying on customers to clean or disinfect their containers is not something these companies want to take.

The fight against COVID-19 has led to an influx of medical plastic and polymer wastes such as masks, faceshields, gloves and gowns that may be contaminated. While it is possible for some items to be recycled, the added risk and cleaning requirements have led hospitals to shy away from sustainable efforts. According to a WHO study in 2018, High-income countries like the US generate approximately 0.5kg of hazardous waste per bed per day. Until the pandemic subsides, there will continue to be more hazardous and non-hazardous polymer materials produced

Even though there is a surge in plastics waste, many recycling centers around the country and around the world were shut down or reduced in capacity due to the pandemic. Some good news is that even with the increase in the use of disposable items, the nature of the lockdown has led to less trash collected by commercial businesses. Recology, a San Francisco Bay area waste disposal company has found a 5% increase in residential collection of trash despite a 20% drop in commercial trash from office buildings, stores, hotels and restaurants. The amount of commercial trash is likely to increase when businesses start to open up, and might overwhelm collection facilities as they open up too.

What can you do? We started the Ray’cycle Quarantine Challenge to help combat this issue as we saw firsthand the increase in single use items. We will be collecting specific items in an attempt to take pressure off of waste management companies as well as to spearhead a sustained community habit to help tackle current and future recycling issues. While we are all dealing with the global pandemic, the fight for a greener planet has taken a backseat role in society. To those feeling guilty about their waste production during the pandemic, your health is the highest priority. Using single use items helps ensure your health and safety during these uneasy times and your waste is offset by the lack of commercial waste. Being mindful of your waste is the best thing you can do at the moment, and as always you can donate your plastic checkout bags, bottle caps, coffee pods and bubble wrap to our Ray’cycle program in exchange for a gift created from the materials you send.


Our COVID-19 Promise

We at Ray’cycle will be closely monitoring the current COVID-19 situation to ensure our researchers and our participants are safe during this  pandemic. During this time, Bucknell University has implemented the following policies to protect the students, faculty and workers:

  • Comprehensive COVID-19 monitoring protocol for students, faculty and staff that includes testing and effective isolation and quarantine arrangements. 
  • Health and safety protocols that consist of social distancing, wearing of face masks and enhanced cleaning of the school environment. 
  • Academic and employment protocols that comprises staggered shifts, remote work and flexible hours.   

On top of the Universities policies and initiatives, the Ray’cycle team will implement our own policies in the laboratory as well. We will:

  • Require all researchers to wash hands with soap or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer when entering and leaving the lab.
  • Continue to provide all researchers with N95 masks and disposable gloves (as long as they are available) to wear in the laboratory for both COVID-19 mitigation and plastic particulate handling.
  • Increase social distancing by allowing a maximum of 3 researchers in a laboratory work space at any given time. 
  • Implement a recyclate collection protocol with features like appointments and hallway pickup to minimize personal handling and contact.
  • Apply an intentional time delay and/or cleaning and sanitation protocols to both the plastics collected and the products made. 

Our research team is committed to practicing preventative measures for the safety of our researchers and the products we produce.

Team Ray’cycle
July 2020


Biodegradable resins in the plastics industry

When plastics first started being mass-produced at the turn of the 20th century, they quickly became popular because of their durability, resistance to heat, and their ability to act as an electrical insulator. Durability was plastic’s claim to fame but in recent years, as more and more plastic is produced in a largely one-time use consumer-based world, its durability is its greatest downfall. Research shows that it could take up to 1,000 years for plastic to decompose in landfills with plastic grocery bags taking anywhere from 10 to 1,000 years and plastic bottles 450 years or more to decompose.

If you think the manufacturing process is the most environmentally-unfriendly part of the lifecycle of plastic, think again. During the degradation process, sunlight breaks up the polymer molecules, potentially releasing toxic chemicals like phthalates and bisphenol-A (BPA), while also reducing the size of the plastic to the microscopic level. These microplastics can then enter waterways, causing harm to humans and animals alike. This process is common to plastics like polyethylene terephthalate (PET), low-density polyethylene (LDPE), high-density polyethylene (HDPE), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Despite the dangers and environmental hazards associated with plastic, it is found in more places than you might imagine, including clothing. So, while many people attempt to limit their use of plastic by bringing reusable canvas bags to the grocery store or drinking from a reusable water bottle, plastic is unavoidable in today’s day and age and it inevitably ends up in our landfills and waterways.

Fortunately, there has been a major move in the plastics industry to come up with more environmentally friendly alternatives to traditional plastics. One example is the plant-based biopolymer called NuPlastiQ (pronounced ‘new plastic’) created by the plastic resin manufacturing company BioLogiQ (pronounced ‘biologic’). Rather than conventional plastics derived from petroleum, NuPlastiQ is made from renewable starch like potatoes. Now while some might say that this could lead to a shortage in the food supply, it’s worth mentioning that BioLogiQ’s proprietary process uses different types of starches including the by-product of processing fries and potato chips – these are starches which would otherwise be discarded. NuPlastiQ has other unique advantages too.

The starch-based biopolymer can easily be blended with other plastic resins, including petroleum-based and bio-based materials. In fact, because of the strength of NuPlastiQ, plastic bags that are 25% NuPlastiQ and 75% LDPE can be made 30% thinner while retaining the same amount of strength. This means that 50% less petroleum-based plastic is needed to manufacture plastic bags, which, for certain applications, actually saves companies money. As more environmentally-friendly and cost-efficient products are developed by companies like BioLogiQ, the plastics industry will be revolutionized for the better. Only time will tell how fast we get there and what new products will be developed.

David J. Lundy is a guest blogger for Ray’cycle Plastics Challenge.  David is a senior chemical engineering and economics student at Bucknell University. In his free time he enjoys learning more about sustainability efforts in industry and how to personally live a more environmentally-conscious life.


Recycling… Time to Back Off or Double Down

Recycling in California has seen a major decrease when the need for environmental consciousness is needed more than ever.

With the battle of climate change nearing a critical point within the next few years, environmentally conscious measures and efforts, like recycling, have never been more important. Recycling is an essential facet of a sustainable society by not only conserving limited resources, but limiting pollution by reducing the amount of plastics that are produced and eventually go to landfills every year.

California has long touted itself to be on the forefront of environmental reform. The state is responsible for some of the strongest environmental laws ever passed. Some of these groundbreaking policies include a law directing industries to reduce all greenhouse by 25% back in 2006, a law in 2002 requiring automakers to reduce emissions by 30%, and the first national policy to ban baby products containing Bisphenol A (BPA).

However, recycling efforts in the Golden State have taken a major step back. The state that once prided itself on being a pioneer in environmental reform is struggling to maintain one of the pillars of the fight against climate change, recycling. The state’s largest recycling center business, RePlanet, has closed nearly 191 of its recycling facilities. This news is troubling considering that RePlanet was responsible for nearly 16% of all can and aluminum recycling in the state.

Along with RePlanet, the state has seen a 40% decrease in the number of recycling facilities across the state. Experts believe that the cause of this drastic change is due to the depressed price of recycle materials and increasing operating costs. I believe that the closure of these recycling facilities is quite disheartening, especially because California prides itself on its progressive environmental and social policies. How can a state be leading the way for environmental reform when it can’t even manage to maintain a recycling program?

With recycling no longer economically viable in regions of the United States, home-grown initiatives like Ray’cycle are becoming more and more important to fill this need. While our program may not be able to fill the entire need of a state’s recycling requirement, it can serve as a model for other institutions to take ownership over the fight against climate change.


So. Many. Air. Pillows.

When you shop at online retailers, they carefully pack your product… with an added bonus of…air and plastics! Air cushion pillows, like bubble wraps, are quite an invention, dating all the way back to the 1950s.

While most of them are labeled with the Resin Identification Code (recycling symbol) of #4 LDPE, sometimes you find them made of #2 HDPE (same material as the typical grocery store bags). Unfortunately, not many municipal recycling centers can take your air pillows because they are too thin and stretchy. (more on this topic in another post!)

During this stay-at-home summer, we all have ramped up our online purchases. It has become my family’s routine to open the box, count how many air pillows are inside, and pop them with a pencil. It’s always fun!

One exaggerated example of a box content is seen above, where 39 continuous air pillows protect one merchandise. This seems unreal, but you know this has occurred to you too.

There seems to be a valid reason for this phenomenon. Online retailers optimize to fill the entire bed space of the trucks leaving their warehouse and can do so by using consistent sized boxes.

I’ve had a summer job at a Japanese courier giant Yamato Transport, and can personally attest that loading a cage or truck with differently sized and shaped packages leads to inefficient and unsafe loading. By sticking your product in one of their approved size boxes, along with air cushions inside, they ensure that your product arrives safely.

Can we get less air pillows, though?




“Refuse” and “Reduce” are at the top of the hierarchy in the well-known “3Rs/5Rs/7Rs of Waste Management”. We could essentially “refuse” to get air cushions by shopping locally. Even if we have to continue to rely on online shopping during this pandemic, we can simply “reduce” the number of air pillows that our favorite online retailers will need in your boxes:

  • Avoid “buy now” and equivalent options
  • Wait until your virtual shopping cart with full to check out and ship
  • Consider the “consolidation of products before shipment” option

Our Ray’cycle Challenge Program will gladly take your air pillows. Don’t forget to pop them before storing. Thank you!