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Stateside Podcast: Rethinking Plastic Recycling

A bunch of plastic water bottles piled up
tanvi sharma
University of Michigan chemist Anne McNeil helped organize her community to clean up plastic around Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.

As American consumers are well aware, plastics are everywhere. And the process of recycling them is more complex than you might think.

“When we do throw our plastics in the recycle bin, we don't quite get the same materials back out,” said University of Michigan chemistry professor Anne McNeil. “The process of mechanical recycling that we've developed over the last 50 years is really a downcycling process that takes the high quality materials we're putting in the recycle bin and downgrades them into lower quality products."

She explained that, when mixing together all the colors and additives used in plastics, the recycled product doesn’t retain all the properties of the original product. McNeil’s research involves finding ways to break down recycled plastic into chemical components that can be more easily reused.

Last year, McNeil collaborated with Procter & Gamble, a leading manufacturer of diapers, to find a second life for the materials used in diapers. Her team puts polymers used in diapers through a chemical transformation, tweaking the purpose of the material while maintaining its original chemical structure.

“And so at the end of the day, the thing that used to be a super absorbent material is now actually a really good adhesive.”

McNeil has taken her quest to reduce waste outside of the lab, too. Last year on Earth Day, her team picked up about 6,000 pieces of trash around Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, with the help of some 50 volunteers.

“We put together a bunch of teams with four or five individuals going to different parks picking up plastics, and it was just such a fun event for everyone. We got such great feedback from it, and it made such a huge impact,” McNeil said.

They ended up doing a second event in the fall, and McNeil has 80 volunteers lined up for this year’s Earth Day cleanup.

Despite her work both in and out of the lab to create a greener world, McNeil said she wonders whether those efforts will be enough to make a significant impact on the climate crisis. On one hand, she recognizes a real push toward action among younger generations–along with some corporations.

“The question is, are we going to get there, you know, in my lifetime or in my children's lifetime? And that one, I don't know. I really hope it's my lifetime, though.”

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April Van Buren is a producer for <i>Stateside</i>. She produces interviews for air as well as web and social media content for the show.
Lucas is a senior at Michigan State University studying professional and public writing. He has previously worked as a co-director of editing for VIM, an MSU fashion magazine. An aspiring music journalist, Lucas dreams of getting paid to go to concerts. He is also a screenwriter. When he’s not working, he can be found walking around aimlessly, listening to either punk rock or Kacey Musgraves.