The Science Behind Our Recycling Solutions: An Interview With Ernie Simpson

On a trip to the Trenton Office, we spoke with Ernie Simpson, Global Vice President of Research and Development, to find out more about the science behind our recycling solutions. You may recognise him from the ‘What happens to the waste’ section on our recycling programme pages! In this blog article, Ernie explains his area of expertise, how he finds solutions to recycling hard-to-recycle waste and discusses one of his greatest recycling challenges to date.

When did you start at TerraCycle and what is your role?

I started in February 2010 as a Director of Materials Engineering and currently I am the Global Vice President of Research and Development.

What is your work background?

My background is actually Polymer Science and Polymer Physics (the science of plastic materials). I started back in the 1970s, working for the DuPont Company in Delaware, USA. I worked for a number of companies including companies like Johnson&Johnson. I have worked in three main areas; looking at how we can use plastic material, developing new medical devices and pharmaceutical research. I resigned from Johnson & Johnson in 2007 but I did consulting work prior to joining TerraCycle.

How did you get into recycling?

Recycling to me was a puzzle. I use the word puzzle because it is very easy to work with virgin material (material that has not been previously used or consumed), but when it comes to recycling material, we’re literally taking about rubbish and how we are trying to isolate each content of the rubbish into usable material. It is a far more difficult process to to recycle these materials than it is to work in the typical plastic industry. I find it much more interesting and challenging to work with difficult materials.

How do you find recycling solutions for hard to recycle waste? Please can you take us through the typical R&D process?

The way I approach every recycling problem is by first starting with going online to look at the US patent office (a database for all of the information on individual patents and original ideas in the USA). I search there to find out if there are any patents that will cover recycling of the material I’m working on.

Ernie
Ernie pictured in the science laboratory

If something is listed in a patent, technically you’re not supposed to use the same method unless you pay to use that process. So the reason why I do this, whenever I develop a process for TerraCycle, is because I don’t want someone to come back to TerraCycle and say ‘you stole an idea from us’.

After checking the database, I test and check the composition of the material and see if it can be melted. I use experience and knowledge of materials to end up writing the final processing diagram that we want to do. Of course, what we usually do since we don’t have production equipment, we take the diagram externally to ask outside companies to recycle the material. We sign a non-disclosure agreement before sending it to a processor to ensure the process isn’t used by anyone else.

What is the most difficult or challenging waste item you have had to recycle? And how did you manage to recycle it?

The most difficult was dirty nappies because they contain bodily fluids and multiple different material components in the product. The challenge was to first sterilize the diaper, using several different methods to separate the section with organic matter. Then, the challenge was ensuring that the outer layer is clean enough to use in a future application (such as being made into roof tiles or park benches). This waste stream has been the most challenging because it involves a lot of different separation and cleaning processes, each of which adds costs and complexity, to achieve the end product.

Do you think there is any type of waste that is not recyclable at all? Can we really recycle everything?

So far, we haven’t had any material come in that we can’t recycle. There is some waste that you have to complete more than one step to recycle. You may be able to recycle a portion of it, and then a portion of it you would have to re-do. I have been working on the recycling of Clorox wipes (disposable wet wipes) and it is going to take a very specific process for recycling them. We will be using a special technique to reduce the size of each wipe to the point where we can recycle it.

Science lab
The place where the magic happens!

So to conclude, it is possible to recycle nearly all plastic materials! If you would like to find out more about the recycling process, please read this article and watch this short video.

To find out what services we offer to businesses and individuals in the UK, please click here.

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