Phoenix has an innovative new recycling microfactory, but it can't solve the plastic crisis alone

By Mark Brodie, Alexandra Olgin
Published: Tuesday, March 12, 2024 - 11:30am

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Phoenix plastics microfactory ribbon cutting ceremony
City of Phoenix
Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego (center) joins Councilwoman Yassamin Ansari (second from right) and representatives from ASU, Hustle PHX and Goodwill of Central and Northern Arizona to cut the ribbon on the city’s plastics microfactory on Feb. 6, 2024.

Phoenix, Arizona State University and others last month opened what they say is a first-of-its-kind facility — a circular plastics microfactory. It’s an effort to increase the amount of plastic that's recycled, and officials hope it can serve as a template for more of these kinds of projects across the region and beyond.

Wyatt Myskow is the Southwest correspondent for Inside Climate News. He joined The Show to talk about what this new facility is all about and what will be happening there.

Full interview

MARK BRODIE: Wyatt, can you first walk us through what this new facility is all about and what will be happening there?

WYATT MYSKOW: So it’s a plastic recycling microfactory. And essentially what I guess makes it unique is that it’s taking all the components of mechanical recycling for plastics — the sorting of the plastics, the chopping them up into little pieces, the melting them down into, I don’t know, a new product and turning them into pellets, which then can be used to make skateboards, tables, any plastic product — and putting it all into one facility.

And kind of the goal here is to increase Phoenix’s ability to recycle more plastics. Right now plastic recycling rates are around 6% in this country, which is incredibly low. We recycle paper and glass at much higher rates. And so this facility, the goal is it’s going to recycle around 1,000 tons of plastic a year, which in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a ton.

The hope is that this could kind of be a proof of concept of making this microfactory work. And then you could have kind of a series of them scattered throughout the city, the state, maybe even the world one day, where you can recycle more plastic.

BRODIE: So prior to this, in general, are there different facilities that do the different functions of recycling plastic?

MYSKOW: Yeah. The way it would typically work in most cities is, as a resident, you throw your plastics way in a recycling bin. They come and collect it. They sort through it, and it goes into a mechanical recycler and they’ll turn it into — let’s say they’re just chop it up. And then maybe another facility might do the process of turning it into a pellet that can then be turned into a product.

In each one of those stages you’re probably looking at transporting that plastic from one place to the other. And so I guess one of the most obvious benefits of this is cutting down the carbon emissions of all that transporting of this plastic and just doing it all in one place and getting it a little bit easier to be done.

Circular Plastics Microfactory plastic pellets
Andy DeLisle/ASU Knowledge Enterprise
Attendees of the Circular Plastics Microfactory launch event inspect plastic pellets produced during the recycling process on Tuesday, Feb. 6, at Goodwill Retail Operations Center in Phoenix.

BRODIE: So how are officials looking to gauge success? Like how will they measure if it’s working or not?

MYSKOW: They have about a year to do this, from my understanding, to kind of test it, see how it works, and see really — I think the goal here is to find a market. Is there a market for these plastics that they’re producing or recycling at this facility?

BRODIE: The pellets.

MYSKOW: Yeah. The pellets themselves and the products are going to be making there, because they’re also at this microfactory turning those pellets into actual products. And if that gets community engagement, and there’s more funding from other potential investors — they’re in talks with other cities to potentially do this — If it works out and the economics work out of it, you can see more of this, and it’ll be a success to the city, I suppose.

BRODIE: So there are obviously a lot of different kinds of plastics, some of which are easier to recycle than others. How will this facility deal with people who put plastics in their bin that maybe isn’t recyclable or isn’t the right kind of plastic to be used with this process?

MYSKOW: So one of the really innovative things about this macro factory is that so they’re getting the stock of plastic that they’re recycling from local Goodwills across Arizona. And so those types of plastics are typically going to be things people are donating, right. Broken toys, broken car seats that maybe your kids have outgrown, plastic bins, stuff like that that’s typically not recycled, but it’s easily recyclable. So they’re type twos and five plastics, which are the easiest and most common plastics for us to recycle.

And our current factories that do this stuff aren’t really built to handle these types of plastic products. And so they’re getting easy to recycle plastics that are a unique type of product that opens up the door for recycling things that typically don’t get recycled.

BRODIE: So as you report, when you wrote about this, it seems like there’s a fairly high level of skepticism about — I don’t know if it’s so much that it will work, but that it will maybe make a difference. Is that a fair assessment?

MYSKOW: I’d say so. I mean, this is obviously just one microfactory. Obviously I don’t think ASU or Phoenix are expecting this one microfactory to suddenly make a huge dent in our kind of plastic pollution crisis really — because that’s what it is.

People are skeptical, and mainly because recycling plastics has not so great a reputation. I mean, we have been trying to do this for years. And as I mentioned earlier, the most recent data from the EPA puts plastic recycling at 9%. That was in 2018. Newer studies since then from outside organizations, nonprofits that study this stuff put it around more 6% nationwide, which is just a small fraction of the amount of plastic, while we’re producing more and more plastic.

You go to a restaurant and order takeout, you’re eating with a plastic fork out of a plastic container. It’s really everywhere, and it’s ending up everywhere. And so critics say the solution here is not necessarily recycling. It is finding a way to use less plastic.

BRODIE: Are those two things mutually exclusive, though? Like could you have this facility that recycles things that, as you say, haven’t really been recycled before, while at the same time we use less plastic?

MYSKOW: You could. And I think that’s maybe ideal. A concern I’ve heard from people who are a bit skeptical is, you know,”Is recycling even the best option for plastics in some cases?” There have been lots of studies on how the plastic recycling process creates microplastics. When you’re chopping up these plastics, you’re putting them from a big piece to a little piece. Smaller little pieces kind of are created in that process that are tiny.

I mean, these things are barely seen by the eye. They end up in the wastewater potentially. And then that wastewater can go all over the place, right? It goes back into maybe an aquifer or into a river or a lake. And that just spreads. And it creates this issue of microplastics, as I talked about, it’s the microplastics that are ending up in people’s bodies, for example.

ASU has plans to try and filter out those microplastics, the nano- and microplastics, and then landfill those, just put them in the dump. But a concern from skeptics is, is this going to make the microplastic problem worse? That obviously would not be ideal.

Man in denim shirt sits in studio
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
Wyatt Myskow in the KJZZ studio in 2024.

BRODIE: What are the economics of doing this in terms of how much it costs to actually do all of these processes that this facility is going to be doing? And then assuming that there is a market for either the pellets or the products, is this something that could be economically self-sufficient?

MYSKOW: So I’ll start by saying I don’t have a figure of how much they expect to spend and how much they might profit off of this, unfortunately. But something ASU researchers who are kind of leading this brought up is to deal with this issue, we need to stop thinking in terms of just pure profit. The reason why our rates are so low and recycling is, one, it’s hard to do. Two, it’s not the most economically viable thing to do.

Despite it maybe not being the most economically viable thing, we have to deal with these plastics. And so their goal is to prove that, hey, there’s a better way of doing this than just doing it purely to make money. And obviously, you know, I’m assuming their goal is to make a little bit of profit, but maybe not the margins that you might expect.

BRODIE: Or at least not lose a lot of money.

MYSKOW: At least not lose a lot of money. I mean, if you break even, that might be good enough for them, because I think there’s a recognition from the parties involved with this that something needs to be done. And this might be an answer to partially solving this issue.

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