PCGS Food-Energy-Water-Nexus Course Student Plastics Project


Graduate students enrolled in Dr. TH Culhane‘s Navigating the Food-EnergyWater-Nexus classes and Research Methodology classes with Dr. Brooke Hansen, are working on a new plastics project this semester. PCGS students Tom Camacho and Folorunso Tosin Esther have been working with Dr. Culhane at the Rosebud Continuum Sustainability Education Center, located in Land O’Lakes, FL. Their work is focused on turning waste plastic into durable educational signs and useful "plast-oil" using Culhane's "BLEST Plastic-to-Oil Machine" and a standard oven.

The $13,000 Plastic-to-Oil Machine was part of a grant given to Culhane by the U.S. Embassy several years ago for sustainability research designed to help in the recovery of disaster and war-impacted economies around the world. This is an area where Culhane has been involved in for many years. Students from Patel classes use the machines at Rosebud to experiment with ways of creating community-scale circular zero-waste economies and for resilience during times when normal "trash pickup" needs to be suspended.

Two projects have been underway at Rosebud. The first project involves shredding HDPE, LDPE, and PP (recycling plastic codes #2, #4 and #5). The shredded pieces are then placed in an oven on cookie sheets, melted and pressed into flat sheets. They are then brought to Rosebud's programmable robotic CNC carving machine and are turned into weatherproof student-created signs for the educational exhibits. Tosin innovated a method for creating the signs and Tom innovated the use of a "Nutribullet" blender to reliably shred the plastic.

Another project involves turning those same plastics into "plastoil". Culhane, the students, and Russel Watrous, a retired engineer from the local community, demonstrated that the plastics could be used as a safe clean fuel for traditional "Hurricane Lamps". After proving the utility of the plastic oil, Camacho purchased a weed-whacker to experiment with. He, Culhane, and Watrous worked their way up from using 10% Plastoil to using a Gasoline blend. Ultimately, they worked their way to using 100% Plastoil as the sole fuel used to trim weeds. Having demonstrated the reliability, Tom recently acquired a used lawnmower donated by PCGS student Mary Boucher. They are now experimenting with using the plastoil to mow the lawn. The students are documenting the projects both with spreadsheets and graphs as well as narrated video productions and graphics.

Finally, USF Innovative Education gave Culhane's Envisioning Sustainability class the use of their Augmented Reality Software License for Zappar/Zapworks. Students are currently placing the Zappar codes on the Plastic to Oil Machine, the Oven, the X-carve robotic router and the Signage around the property. This will enable students visit the property to point their phones or tablets at the signs, triggering the playing of the educational videos which our PCGS students are creating. To ensure that students can have the same experience during the Covid-19 quarantine and travel restrictions, Culhane and his students have been building the exhibits in virtual reality and are now able to have virtual visits during which students can trigger the instructional videos from within the virtual environment.

The hope is that when the Pandemic has passed we will return to a "new normal" -- a more sustainable normal -- where PCGS students doing meaningful research into "Being the Nexus" can help create and implement homes and communities that close the loop and where waste belongs in only one place -- the past!