Trashformers: making waste useful
Like Transformers, Taranaki’s youth are heroes working to save their environment - but by morphing washed up plastics into useful products.
In Taranaki, groups of youth called Trashformers are making a positive impact through local beach clean-ups and then upcycling the plastics they find into new products.
The Trashformers are seeing if the plastics found during beach clean-ups are good enough to be made into something else, by strength testing them against newer HDPE plastics. Their goal is to stop any clean and viable plastics from beach clean-ups going into landfills.
"The idea is to close the loop on beach clean-ups instead of clean-up plastics going into landfills," says Steve Bates at Upcycle Taranaki, a local community group running the Trashformers project.
Since starting in August 2018, the team has learnt about different types of plastics, visited local recycling centres, organised local collections of plastics, done radio interviews, built giant sieves to collect microplastics from beaches, finished welding and building an extrusion machine that melts plastics, and many more activities.
The Trashformers project also has the students looking outside of their schools to expand their understanding of plastics.
The youth have connected with a range of people with different expertise within their local community, including café staff, engineers, marine biologists and teachers. As a result, the students have enabled the project to extend further into the community, and are making a positive impact and creating behaviour change.
In local cafes, many staff members did not know that bottle lids are too small to be recycled at the local Recycling Processing Facility. After informing the staff, the youth have noticed that when they come to collect plastic for their project from cafes, the bottle lids are now being kept separate, ready for recycling.
"It's also been great seeing the amount of support we get from the community during our beach cleans," says Erin Strampel, also at Upcycle Taranaki. "Every time we've involved the community, we've had a really positive response."
The students have also taken the project global. Trashformers have been in touch with a group of students in the UK who have developed a plastics identification unit. This identification unit works to scan and sort different types of plastics similar to how a supermarket checkout works.
By being able to identify what types of plastics are being collected, the Trashformers would be able to make their recycling process more efficient. This would also help enable them to identify micro-plastics or plastic litter from agriculture, commercial and recreational fishing.
Next, the project team plans to build a shredder machine to chip the plastics into smaller pieces, which would allow the collected plastics to be melted by the extruder machine that the students have made.
"My favourite moment was when the extruder first turned shredded plastic into melted goo," Steve says. "That was a significant milestone where I felt we were making an impact."
The Trashformers team with their extrusion machine
The students are also working towards making a series of plastic ‘bricks’ to test the relative strength between degraded plastics and new plastics.
Being part of Trashformers has given Taranaki's youth the opportunity to develop new skills in the different STEM fields and to extend their science learning out of the classroom.
"It has been inspiring working with this group, whose attitude and desire to make a difference is heart-warming," Steve says.
Erin adds, "I feel really proud of the youth. It hasn't been an easy project so its been amazing that they have all stuck together and seen it through to the end."
The next steps of the project enable the students to share what they have been working on and promote behaviour change and make a positive impact on the wider community.
About the project
Trashformers is run by Upcycle Taranaki, with support from the Taranaki Participatory Science Platform.
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