Updated: Jul 21
What do plastic straws and face masks have in common? Aside from wreaking havoc with plastic pollution, it's almost impossible to recycle them. But these guys are building Precious Plastic recycling machines that can turn these pesky un-recyclable materials like face masks and straws, into something new.
Plastic pollution is a global problem that seems to only get bigger. So much of the single use plastic we use daily, like face masks and plastic straws, are REALLY DIFFICULT to recycle. This is usually because they’re contaminated, of too little value, or the recycling technology or infrastructure may not be available. But here’s how tech - decentralised - and in the hands of the people - can help fill the gaps.
Precious Plastic is an open source project that designs machines to recycle plastic - and then tells the world how to replicate them - for free. They’re educational, affordable, and you could build these machines from anywhere in the world. Their beauty is in their simplicity.
You have a shredder which shreds plastic waste, and an injection machine that melts the material and extrudes them into new items. Anyone (with some initial training) can operate these machines - it’s straightforward.
First, the plastics are washed and dried, then sorted into similar types and colours like straws, bottle caps or face masks. This step is crucial and ensures you get a consistent product, so for example with face masks, they only use the main body while removing the metal nose bridge and strings.
The plastic is fed into the shredder which cuts the plastic into small flakes then fed into the injection machine which melts the plastic flakes and injects it into a mould to make new products. This machine can be used with different types of customised moulds - combs, coasters, plant pots, or anything else you would like to design.
We speak to Carlos Steenland from The Sea Monkey Project, one of the most active builders in the global Precious Plastic community who builds these machines right here in Malaysia.
“We stumbled across Precious Plastic back in 2015 - the plans were open source. Our first machine was running on a Proton windscreen wiper motor. It was just a proof of concept ” Carlos reminisced. But just because the designs are open source, doesn’t mean its straight-forward.
Carlos adds, “They’re really easy to build and make them look okay, until you wanna use it. When you wanna use it, you start coming across little details that are missing here and there. So to build a reliable machine is not easy, it takes a long time. And the guys within the Precious Plastics community that are selling reliable machines, they’ve worked long and hard on it. It’s a lot of effort to get your machine working well. Now we’ve got them working very reliably. We’ve kept it very close to the original design and made small changes”.
Reliability is a commanding factor, because even within their small team, they’ve built and sent machines across the world, currently standing at over 50 machines in 40 countries. Yes, Carlos and other people like him in the Precious Plastics community are in high demand. They kept their machines simple and easy to fix because they have to consider where they’re going - which can be in very remote areas.
“Some of the Precious Plastics community have gone onto bigger machines, but then you’re no longer able to use domestic power supply. We’re sticking to the smaller original machines, because a lot of the kampungs only have domestic power. That way, you can create a bigger decentralised network” said Carlos.
That’s the beauty behind these machines. They aren’t just preventing some of our most commonly used non-recyclable items from going to the landfill, the incinerator, or polluting our natural world. Many of them are heading to communities which have little or no access to recycling and waste management infrastructure - leaving very little options to what can be done to recover the value in all these materials.
“They’re actually fantastic plastic and they make really good product, but there’s so little weight and value in them.That’s the problem - you can’t send this stuff to a recycling yard, and there’s very few small scale recycling machines around. There’s very little that’s getting recycled because it’s not clean. It gets thrown away, it goes to landfill”, said Carlos.
While we need more machines like these out in the world and in the hands of people impacted the most by plastic pollution, that’s only half the equation. A big part of the problem is a lack of awareness and education. Through the support of The Sea Monkey Project and others in the Precious Plastic community, these machines provide a gateway to educate communities on the value of waste and the proper steps to recycling, while filling gaps in recycling infrastructure and creating a source of income for communities
“If you can have little centres all over the place, they can recycle it there and then on the spot. All that material can go into new, everyday products that are used all the time. You’ll get these communities that are bringing in food / product, and instead of transporting out waste, they can start to export upcycled products. They’re sending money out of their community but they’re also getting money back into the community…” said Carlos.
So will this be the silver bullet to our plastics problem? Not quite.
“It’s scalable, but it’s not the solution. You literally can’t have enough machines for the waste we generate. The only way to stop that waste, is to stop the consumption. Or slow down the consumption. Start buying less. Start reusing more. It is certainly scalable, but it can’t solve the problem, it’s a part of the solution. The biggest part is to stop buying”
Carlos also has some ideas on how businesses and government sectors can use and partner with communities with this simple, valuable solution. “Look at all the government sectors, there are so many people sitting at desks, they all need rulers. Why not stop buying stuff from overseas like China, and support the B40 (lower income) population? Get these local communities and marginalised people to start manufacturing products that go into the government. You have to have the demand for the final product.”
While the problems of the plastic waste management system aren’t simple, the Precious Plastic community and folks like Carlos offer a solution that is adaptable to many overlooked challenges.
In the end, our addiction to single use plastic has to end. But on the other hand, innovative models like Precious Plastic using tech for good leaves us optimistic
Written by Melissa Tan