After spending six years of her childhood living in Thailand and Japan, Southern Utah University engineering and technology major Paige Hansen was jarred to find the beaches she remembered so fondly from her youth covered in trash when she returned in the summer of 2019.
“It was really, really disheartening,” Hansen said. “This plastic isn’t coming from these people. It’s coming from us. It’s coming from barges taking our trash across the sea.”
Hansen’s right. The United States exports over 1 billion kilograms of plastic waste every year, the majority of which ends up in countries with poor waste management programs such as Thailand, according to Greenpeace.
Seeing the effects of plastic waste firsthand, Hansen knew she wanted to try and make a difference.
Her first plan of action was to travel to Fiji, another country suffering from plastic pollution, and set up workshops that locals could use to recycle the waste themselves.
However, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, her travel plans were put to a halt. Unable to leave the country, she started considering how she could help get rid of plastic waste closer to home.
“Since last January, recycling in Cedar City has ended, and it seems like there is nowhere to go from here,” Hansen said. “Plastic is a huge problem, and especially in the continental [United States].”
Realizing that it was “our trash that is ending up [in other countries] anyway,” Hansen decided that she should tackle the problem at the source. She turned her focus locally — not only in the United States instead of abroad, but specifically on plastic waste at SUU.
Hansen discovered an organization called Precious Plastic, which is a global community that is reducing plastic waste through recycling, creating biodegradable materials and adopting zero-waste lifestyles.
All of Precious Plastic’s resources are open source, including blueprints that Hansen found for a bicycle-powered plastic shredder.
Hansen began spending her free time in the Thunderworks Makerspace on SUU’s campus and built her own bicycle-powered shredder using the Precious Plastic blueprints.
Now she is spending the semester shredding plastic and melting it down into molds to create completely recycled products such as clipboards, rulers and even benches.
Hansen has worked with SUU’s Sustainability Club to gather plastic items such as milk jugs and bottle caps. She, along with a handful of other students interested in recycling, have been riding the bike in order to shred that plastic into small pieces.
The process works by hooking a bike up to a triangular-shaped metal structure. Then, when the biker turns the pedals, it turns a set of thirteen metal blades that shred plastic objects into quarter-inch size pieces.
Now, Hansen is experimenting with melting those pieces down, saying that any heat source does the trick.
“I use a panini press,” Hansen said, chuckling.
While her recycling adventure is just getting off of its feet, she hopes that it will become a much bigger part of SUU’s sustainability goals.
“I’m an idealist, so my ideal version of it would be to have a completely self-sustainable recycling program at SUU,” Hansen said.
Dubbing her project “Red Rock Recycling,” Hansen has been working with administrators and Facilities Management on campus to turn her project into a campus-wide initiative.
This would mean collecting plastic around campus, shredding it in the makerspace, and then repurposing it into products that would be used in classes and sold at the bookstore.
Hansen originally designed her project as bicycle-powered because it was a completely off-grid option, but the plastic has proven difficult to power through on a bike. She now plans to invest in an electric motor this semester so that she can shred more plastic faster.
SUU already has a campus-wide recycling program that recycles paper, cardboard and plastic. However, the university currently does not have the means to recycle these materials themselves, and instead ships all of it to a transfer station in St. George.
In 2019, SUU had to renegotiate their recycling contracts because Rocky Mountain Transfer Station, whom SUU used to be partnered with, informed the university that they could no longer accept SUU’s recycled materials. Now, SUU works with a new company called Republic Services who transfers the recyclable waste to Las Vegas.
In comparison, Hansen’s project would avoid that energy expended from shipping and potentially save money that SUU spends on its current recycling program. In addition, SUU would have more control over what happens to the recycled materials.
Red Rock Recycling would create a closed system where all of the recycling would happen on SUU’s campus.
In developing her project, Hansen has worked closely with engineering and technology professor Richard Cozzens. He has helped her find other people on campus who are interested, as well as connected her with members of the community that can provide her with further resources and advice.
“How cool would it be to collect, process and repurpose [plastic] into something useful right here on the SUU campus?” Cozzens said.
For Cozzens, the small size of her project is what makes him feel as if it has real potential to grow into something bigger. He believes that without a shipping cost and with willing students, that the project “can actually be sustainable within SUU.”
The largest roadblock that Hansen has run into in the development of her project is a lack of funding. To buy the necessary supplies and operate on a campus-wide scale, Hansen estimated that she would need at least $25,000.
Hansen had funding opportunities and won the support of both campus administration and Facilities Management. But because of the economic interests of the COVID-19 pandemic, all funding opportunities thus far have fallen through.
Hansen’s not letting this stop her. She believes that in order to find the money she needs, more people need to be aware of the problem of plastic pollution. Her focus right now with Red Rock Recycling is on educating the campus community
With Cozzens’ help, Hansen is beginning to create small products out of her recycled plastic that can be used as educational talking points at presentations on campus and in the community.
While getting from where her project is now to where she wants it to be feels like a big jump to Hansen, Cozzens believes that she is just the student to do it.
“I support Paige because she’s got the energy and the passion to find out if this can grow into something big,” Cozzens said.
Inspired by trash-littered foreign beaches, Hansen has created a small machine with large potential. Along with educating people, she hopes she can get more students involved to not only ride the bike, but help Red Rock Recycling become a permanent part of SUU’s efforts to become a more sustainable institution.
Students who are interested in supporting Hansen’s project can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story by: Lainey Cartwright
Photos by Paige Hansen and Lainey Cartwright