Kitchener-Waterloo

Students spend weekend 'hacking' plastics at Waterloo event

Students taking part in a "Hack the Plastics" event at the University of Waterloo spent the weekend dreaming up ways to mitigate the environmental damage caused by single-use plastics.

Event put students from different academic backgrounds together

Students Arshan Kawasia and Jessica Bertley took part in the hackathon. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

How do you solve a problem like a non-biodegradable plastic water bottle?

That question was among those being asked at the University of Waterloo's first-ever "Hack the Plastics" event, where students spent the weekend dreaming up ways to mitigate the environmental damage wrought by single-use plastics and pitching their ideas to a panel of judges.

Students were also asked to work together with at least one person from a different academic faculty to come up with these ideas.

Organizer Carly Huitema said that was crucially important, because solving a problem as intractable as plastics pollution will require co-operation from many areas of society.

She also pointed out that great ideas have a tendency to go sideways when there isn't enough input from different kinds of people.

"One of the classic examples, which is kind of sad, is Sun Chips," she said. "Sun Chips made a biodegradable bag, it was awesome, but it was a noisy, crinkly bag and it failed in the market and they started losing share."

She added, "That's the kind of example where, perhaps [they] had fantastic engineers do a great technological solution, but maybe they needed, somewhere, a story about how this kind of product was so successful, so that it would be embraced by the market."

Trevor Charles, who is director of the Waterloo Centre for Microbial Research, agreed.

"It's important for engineers to realize that they need to work with scientists and need to work with business people and people who work in the environmental field and everybody needs to come together to solve these big problems," said Charles.

Microplastics, medical gloves, water bottles

Business student Arshan Kawasia from Western University in London, Ont., brought a pragmatic perspective to his group's project. His team developed a system of capturing samples of microplastics in freshwater sources, while he thought about how to balance the books.   

"You don't want to rely solely on research grants and we don't want to be at a loss making company," he said.

"We want to be able to move science forward while still not burning through a lot of cash."

Ananya Muralidharan came up with the idea for cutting down on waste created by disposable gloves after watching Grey's Anatomy. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Meantime, UW engineering student Ananya Muralidharan came up with her group's idea after watching the TV show Grey's Anatomy. She noticed that characters were throwing away an enormous quantity of nitrile gloves and came up with the idea of separating out the nitrogen from the other ingredients in used gloves and selling it to companies that make fertilizer.

"I was like, 'We can totally do something to kind of change how these gloves are discarded,'" she said.

Kelly Fullerton of McMaster University in Hamilton worked with her group on a roadside collection bin for plastic water bottles. Unlike current bottle-deposit systems, she said the idea would be to use bacteria to degrade the bottles down into their original components, rather than simply turning them into other plastic products.

Although the primary aim of the hackathon was to help students generate ideas and make connections, all three students say they hope their proposals could work as functional businesses.

As for Huitema, she hopes the event will be the first of many. 

"We definitely see next year happening," she said.

Students Daniel Kiss and Kelly Fullerton want to develop a better way of breaking down plastic bottles. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

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