UBC students petition university for plastic repurposing centre

A group of UBC students are challenging the university to help them create a centre for repurposing plastic products. The Melt Collective is currently petitioning UBC President Dr. Santa Ono and Dr. Marc Parlange, the dean of applied science, for one such centre on campus that will help reduce plastic waste and would educate the student body.

The Melt Collective is a multi-discipline student group dedicated to finding solutions to reduce UBC’s plastic waste through repurposing and to change how waste is viewed. They are working in conjunction the WasteNauts, a group of engineering students, to help with the process' technical aspects. Their petition currently has 167 signatures, with a final goal of 200.

Although Parlange, managing director of infrastructure development John Metras and Dr. James Olson, the associate dean of research and industrial partnerships, were not familiar with the petition, they all expressed their support for group.

“We want our students to be able to start ideas,” said Parlange.

“We’re super enthused that the students have this kind of initiative and we’re here to help in any way we can,” said Olson.

The Melt Collective approached Olson with their requirements to have a fully functional work space that meets their needs. The idea of transforming an area in the old student union building was put forward, as it would be able to satisfy the main concern of being able to remove wastewater.  

“Anything is possible, but there’s the cost. We need to look at the needs, and find a space that works reasonably and feasibly. There may be a more suitable location elsewhere,” said Metras.

Through the centre, The Melt Collective wants to educate students about the process and need for plastic repurposing. Student volunteers would have the opportunity to be involved in helping to sort and audit plastic. From there, they would help in washing the plastic products to prepare them for grinding and heating to melt them down. Having the centre would allow for a central location which could be used to store the plastic and hold the equipment that is necessary for the repurposing process.   

Patrick Wilkie, a fifth-year electrical engineering undergraduate student and director of The Melt Collective, and Ashna Misra, a third-year chemical engineering undergraduate student and the group's director of communication, spoke to the use of a new space in order to be able to implement their ideas as well as continue to expand their image and product.

“Moving forward, we’re working on more significant product design, and making a workshop for students where we bring them in and teach them a little bit about industrial fabrication,” said Wilkie.

The Melt Collective, in its effort to reimage plastic from waste to a usable product, created new items that can be used by students. The group collects the plastic from The Nest on campus to be reformed into reusable products. Keychains and coasters have been made through melting down the various collected plastics and they are looking to expand what is made through a new centre. They have also reached out to the UBC Bookstore and Patagonia to potentially sell their products.

The group is also looking to provide an opportunity for students to learn about plastic recycling, which follows the UBC Sustainability Initiative to have the university as a living laboratory. The centre would help make plastic recycling more relevant and accessible to the greater student body, either through volunteering at the centre or by owning a product made at there.

Dr. Werner Antweiler, a professor in the Sauder School of Business who is involved in the Sustainability and Ethics Group — a team of professors at the school who are dedicated to research regarding sustainability and ethics — felt that the group fits in with the Sustainability Initiative. The Initiative is about inspiring creativity and new ideas for ways to be more sustainable, and The Melt Collective could play a part in exploring new solutions to current issues.

Looking at the long term, there is a transition from all this being a pilot project to a commercially viable one.

“To succeed out in the world, it needs to be commercially viable and that typically requires two things — it needs to scale up so it can cover your overhead, and the other is finding the market,” said Werner.

To find the right market, he gave the idea of possibly furthering partnerships that could be made with businesses outside of UBC such as selling coasters to pubs. This would allow for merchandise to be sold, while increasing the environmental image of the pub.

The petition remains open, but in the meantime, The Melt Collective continues to repurpose and reimagine plastic waste into reusable products in order to help create a more sustainable campus.