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First-of-its-kind plastics recycling microfactory to transform waste, create new jobs

Circular Plastics Microfactory result of partnership between ASU, city of Phoenix, Goodwill, Hustle PHX


A hand picks up a handful of plastic pellets from a bucket.

Attendees of the Circular Plastics Microfactory launch event inspect plastic pellets produced during the recycling process on Tuesday, Feb. 6, at Goodwill Retail Operations Center in Phoenix. Courtesy photo

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February 06, 2024

A new plastics recycling and remanufacturing “microfactory” will convert waste materials into new products, provide skilled job opportunities and create a cooperative business model in Phoenix.

A first-of-its-kind, the Circular Plastics Microfactory held its opening ceremony on Feb. 6 and is a result of partnerships between Arizona State University, the city of Phoenix, Goodwill of Central and Northern Arizona, and Hustle PHX.

“We are excited to make history today in Phoenix. We have a sense that, from Phoenix, this will go throughout the world, and it’s exciting to be leading in innovation right now. Phoenix will be known for whatever great ideas come out of this facility,” Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said at the grand opening.

Mayor Gallego stands at a podium to give remarks during the opening event.
Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego speaks at the Circular Plastics Microfactory launch on Tuesday, Feb. 6, at Goodwill Retail Operations Center in Phoenix. Photo by Andy DeLisle/ASU Knowledge Enterprise

Located at the Goodwill Retail Operations Center in Phoenix, the facility will take sorted plastic waste from Goodwill of Central and Northern Arizona, process it into pellets and use the pellets to create new products for sale.

The product options are nearly limitless, including skateboards, flat-pack furniture, plastic lumber and even smaller plastic components for larger assembled products.

“It’s the first plastics microfactory of its kind,” said Alicia Marseille, senior director of ASU’s Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Service in the Global Futures Laboratory. “These components — the processing, the collections, the remanufacturing — exist, but they’re spread out all over the world.

"This is the first attempt to do the entire process in one location to actualize a regional circular economy.”

The microfactory is good news for both the local economy and the environment. The facility will employ around 10 people and is expected to save up to 550 tons of plastic from the landfill per year — over three times the weight of the Statue of Liberty. It is seeking partnerships and collaborations now and is expected to be open for business this summer.

“The Circular Plastics Microfactory is part of the mission of the Global Futures Laboratory, which is to design options for sustaining global habitability and improving the well-being of all life on a healthy planet,” said Peter Schlosser, director of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory and the vice president and vice provost of global futures at ASU.

“It will enable us to reduce the amount of plastic waste that ends up in the landfills and instead we will repurpose it for circular solutions.”

Peter Schlosser stands at a podium to give remarks during the opening event.
Peter Schlosser, vice president and vice provost of global futures at ASU, speaks at the Circular Plastics Microfactory launch on Tuesday, Feb. 6, at Goodwill Retail Operations Center in Phoenix. Photo by Andy DeLisle/ASU Knowledge Enterprise

The microfactory will give discarded plastic new life by using it to make new products that are sold and used in the community again. This is called a circular economy, and it’s a key strategy to keep waste from going to landfills. It also reduces greenhouse gas emissions by eliminating the need for shipping recyclable plastics to processing facilities elsewhere.

"The city of Phoenix is committed to becoming the most sustainable desert city on the planet," said Gallego. "By mitigating the amount of valuable commodities ending up in our waste stream and instead cultivating a localized circular economy to repurpose these materials, we are taking the steps necessary to achieve our vision of a better, brighter Phoenix for our residents.”

“One of the critical pieces in doing all of this is creating the right kind of partnerships and having shared values, vision and mission," said Rajesh Buch, director of business development in the Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Service. "When you find the right partners that align with what you’re trying to do, then you can be successful. That’s what this microfactory shows.”

The city of Phoenix funded the microfactory project because it supports its ongoing Zero Waste project — a goal to divert 90% of its waste from landfills by 2050 — while also creating new jobs.

Goodwill of Central and Northern Arizona, with over 70 years of operational expertise, is also a natural partner in the project. Its Retail Operations Center in Phoenix will provide a reliable source of discarded plastic for use as feedstock in the microfactory. In addition to taking care of the plastics collection piece, Goodwill sorts and grades the plastic so that the microfactory can process it faster.

The facility is currently able to process plastic types 2 and 5 (such as toys and food packaging), but has the capability to expand to include types 1 and 4 (such as water bottles and shopping bags) in the future.

“We are honored to be part of such an important effort that is revolutionizing the plastics industry," said Tim O’Neal, CEO of Goodwill of Central and Northern Arizona. "Our retail model is continually evolving in order to extract value, maximize the opportunity for re-use and ultimately create circularity for every donation we receive, including the hundreds of thousands of pounds of plastics that enter our facilities every year.

"We look forward to continuing to partner with Arizona State University, the city of Phoenix and Hustle PHX to bring this innovative circular economy initiative to life.”

Hustle PHX is a Black-owned and faith-based workforce development organization that serves marginalized communities in Phoenix. Once the microfactory is running smoothly and the staff is trained, Hustle PHX will seek entrepreneurs interested in owning it or in producing prototypes and small-batch products for their businesses.

"Hustle PHX operates a three-part entrepreneurship, technical assistance and small business program that includes participants from the Black and Hispanic community, opportunity youth and incarcerated individuals," said Crys Waddell, creative strategist and chief operating officer of Hustle PHX. "To date, we have helped more than 300 businesses start, and we currently serve over 200 entrepreneurs per year, matching each of them with a mentor to support their entrepreneurship journey,”

Call for partnerships

The Circular Plastics Microfactory is seeking partnerships and collaborations, including parties interested in prototyping, supplying plastic feedstock, suggesting product ideas and replicating the microfactory model in other locations. If interested, please contact Alicia Marseille at alicia.marseille@asu.edu.

Ultimately, the goal is to turn the microfactory into a cooperative enterprise, a type of business where ownership is equally split and shared between the employees. This model allows workers to earn more than just minimum hourly wages and spreads earnings equitably.

The microfactory project has its roots in another project facilitated by the ASU Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Service: the Circular Living Lab. The lab finds and implements sustainable solutions to complex problems such as waste management on ASU campuses. With nearly 80,000 students across four campuses and over 400 buildings, ASU is an ideal city model to test new waste management approaches.

Working with the ASU Zero Waste program, the lab collected recycled plastics, processed them into flakes and used them to create new plastic products. Once the lab proved the concept on a small scale, the city of Phoenix decided to scale up the system and create the microfactory.

But the project goes beyond plastics recycling by also creating opportunities for workforce development, entrepreneurship and circular economics.

“Our team focuses on how to co-design complex solutions for complex problems and solve multiple things simultaneously, how to bring all the different partners together across the value chain to create the solution,” Marseille said.

Read more

ASU Thrive: Fixing the plastic problem

ASU’s long-term goals for this project extend beyond the city’s involvement. Once the researchers determine the microfactory’s success in Phoenix, they hope to take the concept across national borders, where it can support women internationally.

“Seventy percent of waste pickers around the world are women. They collect enough valuable plastic, metal or glass to sell for their family’s next meal,” Buch said. “If you can move them up the value chain so that they not only collect the material, but process and manufacture it into a new product, then they start making a livable income.

"A small microfactory can transform 10 or 20 women from pickers to producers.”

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