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 added, “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.

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