PET bottles are barely (less than 30%) recycled in America, a country that has the infrastructure to recycle it. In developing nations that don't have recycling technology and equipment, yet are awash in PET bottles, an environmental disaster looms.
In Uganda, for instance, "plastic bottles are burned, discarded as litter in the streets, or thrown into landfills in the absence of a local recycling option," writes Paige Balcom, a PhD student in Mechanical Engineering at U.C. Berkeley.
On the ground in Uganda, Balcom used her skillset to devise a technical solution that would simultaneously have a positive social impact.
"[Balcom] developed manually-operated machines that make durable products from PET. The machines can be locally made using parts that are commonly available in medium-size towns or cities in developing countries and are intended to be operated by local youth.
"PET plastic trash is collected, shredded, washed, dried in the sun, and fed into the machines. The plastic is melted and the chemical structure of the PET is altered just enough to make it strong and prevent the brittleness and breakage that normally inhibit PET repurposing. Molten plastic is molded into usable products like wall tiles that are sold to contractors, builders, hardware stores, and homeowners.
"The PET recycled plastic wall tiles passed flammability testing and are cheaper and more durable than ceramic tiles currently on the market."
Balcom and a Ugandan colleague, Peter Okwoko, founded a company called Takataka Plastics to replicate and commercialize the techniques and create local jobs. Thus far they've been able to produce both tiles and, during the pandemic, face shields, both made from 100% recycled PET.
With 16 employees thus far, the company estimates that by the end of 2021, they'll have the capacity to recycle 9 tonnes of PET per month.
For her efforts, Balcom won a Lemelson-MIT Student Prize. Her plan is to use the $15,000 in winnings "to finance grants in Uganda to support local innovators." She also plans to return to Uganda to scale Takataka Plastics up once she's completed her PhD.