The University of Kentucky Appropriate Technology and Sustainability (UKATS) research group, in collaboration with Ugandan Makerere University and a Paducah-based nonprofit, Beyond Uganda, has taken a stand on one of the most prominent environmental issues currently being faced: plastic waste pollution.
Although plastic can be recycled, on a small portion ends up being converted into new material, resulting in the remainder of plastic being landfilled, incinerated or simply dumped.
“We certainly use too much plastic, but the problem is in many parts of the world they simply lack the infrastructure to manage that waste, so it ends up on the ground and in waterways,” said Dr. Jeff Seay, professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Kentucky and Principal Investigator of the UK Appropriate Technology and Sustainability research lab.
To combat the rising issue of plastic waste pollution, the UKATS Group developed the Trash to Tank, or 3T process. This process converts post-consumer used plastic into plastic derived fuel oil (PDFO). This initiative allows the plastic to regain its value, while also being completely consumed and removed from the ecosystem.
For developing or resource-limited regions, this chemical reactor allows communities to convert the plastic waste into PDFO in a way that is low cost, safe and easy to operate. Essentially, providing communities not only with an incentive for waste collection, but with business and entrepreneur opportunities.
“Once local people convert the waste plastic into fuel oil, then they can sell that fuel locally, so it benefits the economy while also allowing them to address their waste plastic problem,” Seay said.
The Trash to Tank process has not only benefited the local community in Uganda, but its impact has touched the heart of University of Kentucky members as well.
“As an engineer you focus on the machinery, the economics, the products and its efficiency, but this project has allowed me to see the humanitarian side of all this,” said Shelby Browning, chemical engineering student and UKATS member. “To see the people light up and realize there is something they can do to help someone and the community is a whole different side of engineering I did not know existed.”
The implementation of this program has allowed many UK students to get hands on experience, allowing them to implement in society what is being learned in the classroom.
“This past summer we started teaching locals in the community how to use the Trash to Tank process,” Browning said. “We taught them how to judge which plastics they can use, how to separate them and start the processor. I’ve learned simplicity is best specially for applications like this.”
The program has also spurred an interest in keeping up with current events around the world to see how their education can help combat global issues.
“This really fits into the educational mission,” Seay said. “As a professor, I’ve used this initiative to improve problem solving skills in the classroom. Students take for granted all the technology we have available here and our ability to use tools to measure data, so while being presented with issues like this they have to think through how to solve problems without the tools that we are used to.”
It can be a challenging task to create a new technology, without trading off its safety, low cost, or simplicity in order to work in an emerging economy, but the UKATS research group along with Makerere University, Institutional Energy Solutions, and the Rotary Club of Paducah, Kentucky and Kampala North have worked together to make the 3T concept possible.
Currently, the team is working with the Uganda Bureau of Standards to get the fuel certified as an over-the-road fuel and plans to get these processors in other locations such as Dominican Republic, Thailand, Nepal and Brazil to reduce plastic waste pollution and provide once again an economic incentive to these communities.