Milk jugs are made of high-density polyethylene plastic, one of the most versatile plastic resins for recycling and reuse. Because of its value, a new industry-government partnership in New Brunswick is trying to make easier for residents to recycle plastic milk containers and keep them out of landfills.

Led by Bernard Morin, president of regional packaging company Thermopak Ltd., Université de Moncton electrical engineering PhD student Rahma Zayoud, and funded by national not-for-profit organization Mitacs, the group is looking to develop special milk jug recycling bins that incorporate radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags and WiFi to help separate milk containers from other recyclables in the province.

“Plastic milk jugs are mostly going out with the garbage right now,” Morin explains, adding that the majority of New Brunswick’s 72 recycling centres do not include milk jugs on their list of recyclable items and only one of six landfills has a program for separating milk containers for resale. “Our goal is to introduce a reliable and efficient collection system so that we can successfully upcycle this plastic into a new product.”

Each bin, all of which will be placed in easily accessible public places such as malls or recycling centres, will be equipped with a RFID tag to track its location, a weight sensor to detect when it is full, and an infrared sensor to count each jug that passes through its opening, says Mitacs business development director Jesse Vincent-Herscovici.

Each bin will communicate its data through WiFi to a real-time tracking system that helps recycling truck drivers locate the most efficient way to pick up full bins. They will also emit a buzzer sound when the driver is close to help pinpoint them in case they are hidden by snow or foliage.

“The idea behind this project is to use what has become very trendy but simple piece of technology and use it to better sort milk jugs,” Vincent-Herscovici tells IT World Canada. “We wanted to automate the process as much as possible so that they’re not getting thrown into the garbage, or lumped in with other materials and sorted later at the recycling facility, which makes the process harder.”

While the idea is still being researched and tested, Thermopak’s Morin believes it could be rolled out as a pilot project in New Brunswick next year, and that it has potential to be scaled up across Canada at some point in the future.

Milk jug plastic is melted down and formed into pellets, which can be used to make non-food products such as flower pots, detergent bottles, toys, containers, drainage tiles, pipes, and plastic lumber for patio furniture and decks.

Vincent-Herscovici adds that this technology has many other applications as well, such as the grocery industry. RFID tags on every carton or jug could be used to track misplaced products that customers put back in different spots.

“The sky is the limit here,” he explains. “Imagine if you’re a grocery store and want to track your products – all of a sudden you have access to that data at your fingertips. It allows for better inventory management at the store level, lending itself to less waste further down the chain.”

However, Morin notes that milk containers are very cheap to produce and that putting an RFID tag in each one might not be worth the price tag.

“We don’t want to put too much value into a product that’s so inexpensive to manufacture because it’s so common. And with no incentive to recycle it, we’d really have to look long and hard at the costs and benefits of putting RFID technology into individual containers,” he concludes.

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