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Recycling efforts on campus go beyond blue bins

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A recycling can is pictured on UNC's campus

At last month's Board of Trustees meeting, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz discussed recycling on campus and announced that the University would be supporting sustainable efforts like polymer research. 

Chemistry professor Frank Leibfarth is leading the group of researchers who are studying the upcycling of polymer plastics. 

He said that all plastics are polymers, but not all polymers are plastics. His team is researching chemical reactions on plastics so that the product of that reaction is a new plastic with a higher value than the material beforehand. 

“Our idea is that the upcycling process can create an economic incentive for recycling where you would want to recycle because there's actually money there,” he said. 

In order to make Leibfarth’s team’s research more accessible to the community, Jamilia Martineau-Lopez, the interpretive programs lead coordinator at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, put together programs to teach visitors about polymer research. 

The staff customizes their activities to visitors of all ages in the Launch Lab makerspace.

One of the makerspace's main focuses is reusing and recreating instead of consuming, Martineau-Lopez said. 

Last year, the staff dedicated a month to sustainability as the future of engineering and focused on upcycling and repairing. Activities, such as upcycling old fabrics and making pollinator seed bombs from recycled paper were offered, along with presenting research about polymer plastic.

By coming up with hands-on activities for visitors, Martineau-Lopez believes her team at the planetarium was able to turn this abstract research on plastics into a tangible thing that community members could better understand. They also hope that efforts will help community members be more conscious about their recycling habits. 

“I think if you have an understanding that even if you're recycling your plastics, they have a certain lifespan, you're more likely to try to find a plastic alternative or pay attention to the kind of research that's happening around plastic recycling,” they said.

While Leibfarth said this new research positions UNC as a leader in the field of polymer science, he thinks that the University could improve its recycling efforts on campus.

“The University could prioritize reusing or essentially decreasing the amount of single-use plastics at their many facilities and other events,” Leibfarth said. “I think it would go a long way in decreasing the amount of plastic waste that's generated on campus.”

Currently, there are several initiatives on campus seeking to improve recycling and sustainability efforts.

“Carolina Dining Services promotes sustainable practices across all levels of its operations and actively engages with the campus community through events, educational programs,” Victoria Hill, sustainability manager for CDS, said in a statement. 

CDS' Green Guide program runs on a biweekly basis, in which student volunteers are stationed at the waste sorting stations in Lenoir Dining Hall. These students enforce appropriate sorting of food waste in an effort to reduce contamination rates, Hill said. 

As well as providing recycling bins in all dining locations, CDS also recycles in their back of house food prep stations as well as recycles fryer oil into biodiesel. The dining service publishes an annual sustainability report to be publicly accountable to its sustainability goals. 

Leibfarth said that everyone should care about this issue because plastic is the number one thing filling landfills right now. 

“A lot of undergraduates and graduate students are passionate about sustainability and having labs that are focused on that gives them an outlet to do research in the area to try to make a difference,” he said.

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