Tinkerers like Anthony Wheeler love finding solutions to the problems they see in the world, like plastic waste on the ground and in waterways — waste that will probably never make it to a recycling facility.
The ideal fix would be to turn this material, which never decomposes, into other useful things.
Wheeler, the owner of a West Virginia sign shop, built two plastic recycling machines in his garage with his two sons. The machines melt plastic bottle caps and extrude plastic, which can be molded into baskets. The boys have a business selling the crafts online, at local events and at a nearby museum. Baskets retail for $6 to $18.
“The boys can enjoy earning money by doing good things,” Wheeler said. “They get the joy of earning, and there’s no better win-win.”
The blueprints for the recycling machines came from Precious Plastics, an open-source project that provides resources for recycling plastic. Wheeler said the machines worked well, but it helps to have some technical expertise if you want to build one. He tweaked the measurements and fiddled with the motor and a few other parts. The machine comes with limitless mulligans. Finished products that don’t turn out well can go right back through the recycler.
The raw materials come from all over the community. Wheeler and his sons leave collection bins in public places, and their neighbors bring garbage bags full of bottle caps. Wheeler said that it’s safe to melt bottle caps down because they are made of high-density polyethylene — indicated by the number 2 inside of a triangle — which is non-toxic.
Wheeler has a long history of tinkering. He once constructed an Archimedes water screw that generates electricity when water passes through it. He’s always looking to solve environmental problems — namely, a surplus of plastic waste where he lives.
The machine has been quite a hit. Wheeler’s sons demonstrated the basket making process at the West Virginia Makes Festival and won a $500 prize. While there, they sold baskets to attendees.
“They were selling them as fast as we could make them,” Wheeler said, proud that his sons own a business. “I believe in capitalism and commerce. So, I’m teaching my boys the idea that you can be smart and make a profit from trash on the ground.”
“I’m really surprised that there aren’t more of these,” Wheeler said, noting the popularity of 3D-printing. Precious Plastics’ machines can produce filaments for 3D-printers. Wheeler’s eager to see them put to good use, both for his business and for the environment.
Plastic is far from sustainable. Every piece of plastic ever made still exists today — every one made from oil. In 2012, the U.S. recycled just 9 percent of its post-consumer plastic. If more people take matters into their own hands, that can change.
“Whether we like it or not, plastic is our inherited toxic legacy,” Dave Hakken’s, founder of Precious Plastics, wrote on his website. “Let’s use it as a resource to create new value and social innovation.”
Around the world, builders are using plastic-producing machines to make tools. In Mexico City, a group of students built machines to make plastic gardening tools for local urban farming. In Jakarta, a designer recycled plastic to make benches for public spaces.
“It’s about taking something temporary and making something permanent,” said Wheeler. “There are so many opportunities we haven’t done yet.”