3D Residents’ Project Diary: Week 4

In search of a third life for Operation #recyCLEAN's plastics

Avenue Concept 3D Resident Artists Bonnie Combs and Jen Long at their volunteer clean-up dayWe checked in with Bonnie and Jen in Week 4 of their residency supporting Steven Siegel’s sculpture and found them digging deeper to uncover “third-life” solutions for the 30-cubic yards of plastics already collected by their awesome #recyCLEAN community participants.

What do they mean by “third life”? Well, in their first life, these plastic jugs served as containers for detergents and lotions – a first life lasting just a couple months to a year. Operation #recyCLEAN volunteers recently helped Bonnie and Jen clean and prepare these plastics for their second life (pictured), in which Steven Siegel will transform them into a public sculpture that will be on view for one or two years. Added together, those two lives take up no more than three years of the astounding 450-year material life these plastic jugs and lids have. Thus, Bonnie and Jen are looking for third-life solutions for upcycling them after the sculpture comes down.

A recent visit to Rhode Island Resource Recovery assured Bonnie and Jen that the #recyCLEAN plastics collection could be added to RIRR’s recycling stream as one plan for third life. They would then be purchased by a company that grinds them into pellets for remanufacture. But could that lead to them returning as similarly short-lived products destined for a landfill? And what is the carbon footprint of continual re-manufacture and re-shipping?

Considering those questions Bonnie and Jen listed some criteria to guide their third-life search:

  • Colorful, delightful, useful, attractive design  
  • Lasting purpose appropriate to a material that will last another 447 years
  • Gives back in a meaningful way to the schools and citizens that helped collect these plastics in their first life
  • Local manufacturing
    • to minimize carbon footprint of shipping
    • to support local economy and artists

Step One: Identify #recyCLEAN plastics by number
“Not all plastic is created equal,” Bonnie noted. “And when you look at how to recycle it or have it processed into pellets, you need to know exactly what kind of plastic you’re working with. Those little numbers inside the triangle make a big difference. The problem is when people see that familiar triangle of chasing arrows and thinking it automatically means it’s recyclable and can go into the recycling bin. The truth of the matter is that symbol simply carries the Resin Identification Code and there are seven different ones.” (Learn more here.)

According to  Adam Gendell of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, these numbers were created back in the 1980s for people behind the scenes of recycling. “They were not designed as a consumer communication tool,” he explained. “The Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) created the numbers in an effort to develop consistency in plastics manufacturing and recycled plastics reprocessing.”

Since Bonnie and Jen drilled down their #recyCLEAN collection to capture clean, colorful plastic jugs from laundry, cleaning and body care products, they are working with #2 plastic, known as High Density Polyethylene (HDPE).

Step Two: Learn what can be made with #2 plastic
#2 plastic can be recycled into products like:

  • plastic “lumber”
  • plastic outdoor patio furniture
  • plastic playground equipment
  • plastic automobile parts
  • plastic trash cans
  • compost bins
  • recycling bins.

When Bonnie and Jen met with Rhode Island College’s sustainability coordinator, Jim Murphy, he shared a catalog with them showing where the college purchases trash cans and recycling bins, all made from recycled plastic. The manufacturer sources plastic pellets produced from recycled plastic milk jugs and makes new products from them. They also learned that the college’s caps and gowns for commencement are made from recycled plastic bottles and any unwanted gowns after commencement are sent back for recycling. They were impressed with RIC’s commitment to sustainability and their participation in these programs.

Step Three: Evaluate options, narrow the focus based on parameters
Trash cans, compost bins and recycling bins sound like pretty good third lives for #recyCLEAN plastics. They are designed for purposes that last much longer than the few months of their first life. But even if they are in use for 20 years, that’s still just a fraction of their 450-year material life. They do serve their community, but aren’t particularly delightful, in a playful, emotional way.

Plastic lumber, outdoor patio furniture and playground equipment seem more aligned with Bonnie and Jen’s product life intention and their wish to give back, so they are focusing on those options.

Step Four: Research local manufacturers and design schools
Bonnie reached out to a plastics recycler she’s worked with in Blackstone Valley who once recycled styrofoam, but still continues with recycling of different plastics. “He said he works with a plastics grinder in Woonsocket and that when the sculpture is ready to be dismantled that he would help facilitate the process,” Bonnie noted. “The next step is to find a company, preferably local, that would produce products for us, like park benches, made from the HDPE pellets.”

Meanwhile, Jen is looking into area colleges that may want the opportunity to explore the creative reuse of this material. She’s going to meet with Johnson & Wales University, and they’re discussing it with RIC too.

Stay tuned for more developments as they search for the perfect third life.