Engineering students take plastic recycling to the next level

In-house facility at U of A keeps hard-to-sort items out of landfills by converting them into useful products.

Two engineering students have designed and launched an in-house recycling facility at the University of Alberta, diverting difficult-to-sort plastic from landfills.

Their goal is to demonstrate how institutions such as schools, universities and hospitals can recycle their own plastic waste, converting it into bricks, tiles, climbing accessories and other useful products.

“It’s an example of moving recycling infrastructure directly to institutions, so it can occur before plastic is disorganized, dirty and unsorted,” says Jacob Damant, a fifth-year biomedical engineering student and co-founder of Level 7 Plastics along with business partner Connor Povoledo, also in fifth-year biomedical engineering.

The company name refers to the “other” resin code used to designate the plastics most challenging to recycle. Their slogan is “declaring war on plastic waste.”

“We’ve tried to do the heavy lifting, so like-minded individuals can use machines like this to do their part to recycle plastic waste. We’ve run into countless people who want to do stuff like this, but they haven’t gone through five gruelling years of getting the laboratory, machines and everything else optimized.”

The world produces more than 380 million tonnes of plastic every year. Before 2017, about 70 per cent of North America’s plastic waste was exported mainly to China, but that year China stopped accepting plastic. Today Canada recycles only nine per cent of its plastic waste.

The key to Level 7’s process is targeting small, light polycarbonate containers and syringes, mostly used in labs and often discarded in large quantities. Because of their size and weight, they are difficult to sort and separate in large recycling plants like Edmonton’s Materials Recovery Facility.

The plastic is ground down into small flakes that can then be melted and pressed into strong and durable high-density polyethylene, often used in composite wood and plastic lumber.

Level 7 is the third company Damant and Povoledo have started together. The two met in Grade 2 as soccer teammates, and while still in high school launched a 3D printing company. “We were in the same math class and would skip class to work on our company and maybe play a little guitar,” says Damant.

They launched their first iteration of Level 7 as a prototypical startup while in first-year engineering, funding it entirely on their own to produce products like the Love Handle 7 for organizing climbing gear, and the Chalkboard apparatus for climbers to increase strength in their fingers. Since 2019, the company has recycled more than 1,000 pounds of plastic, or 50,000 water bottles.

Two years ago — with the help of Robert Burrell, former Canada Research Chair in Nanostructured Biomaterials — they also developed an AI-powered app called Wound³ to track the progress of healing wounds through medical imaging.

Last year, the two began scaling up Level 7 in the Natural Resources Engineering Facility with support from the Faculty of Engineering — designing, building and installing the machines that grind and press plastic feedstock. They now have 20 students working in the facility either as volunteers or co-op placements, and several products in development, including bricks, tiles, a large desk and even a stylish guitar.

“The university is a great example of a place with a lot of labs that, like a hospital, has a lot of disposable small plastic waste that, even if you put it in a blue bin, won’t go anywhere,” says Povoledo.

When considering any new venture, Damant and Povoledo ask two simple questions: why is this important and what problem are we solving?

“If we can’t answer them, we don’t want to be the ones doing it,” says Damant. “There are a lot of companies out there making money, but they’re not necessarily solving a problem. So why bother?”

“There’s something to be said about walking into a lab and, with your hands, doing the exact thing you want to see happen in the world,” adds Povoledo.

“It’s tangible — you can hold it, you can see it, and when you walk out, you’re like, ‘Nice, I did that.’”