The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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rStream Recycling Team Makes Finals of 2021 Innovation Challenge

Ian Goodine (left) and Ethan Walko (right)

Ian Goodine
& Ethan Walko

rStream Recycling, a startup company co-founded by undergrads Ian Goodine and Ethan Walko of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department, is one of the five projects selected to compete in the $60,000 Innovation Challenge Final on April 7. rStream is a pioneering approach to recycling the vast amount of plastic dumped into landfills each year. Instead, it repurposes this discarded waste into clean material that can be reused to manufacture innumerable items and technologies in an eco-friendly way.

As Goodine and Walko describe their startup idea: “Look around, plastic is everywhere. It lives forever, so it's perfect to build with and awful to trash. rStream Recycling is looking to reimagine recycling, how it happens, and where it happens, in an effort to ensure more things are processed correctly in the end. In this way we pursue sustainable outcomes by leveraging technical innovations to democratize recycling.”

Hosted by the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship, the four-part Innovation Challenge held its semifinal competition on Monday, February 22. In front of a panel of four judges, 17 student-led startups each gave five-minute pitches describing their ventures and participated in a 10-minute Q&A session. The judges then selected five teams, including rStream Recycling, to advance to the Innovation Challenge Final, when $60,000 in seed money will be awarded.

“Environmental protection is central to our lives in 2021,” as Goodine and Walko write in their executive summary. “A primary unsolved challenge is that of plastic waste.”

According to Goodine and Walko, of the 35 million tons of plastic solid waste generated in the U.S. in 2017, only about 8 percent was recycled while 80 percent was landfilled. It’s a poor recycling record which can be largely attributed to the limited financial incentive in traditional recycling.

“As a business,” Goodine and Walko explain, “rStream Recycling seeks to provide an alternative approach to plastic waste management; instead of paying traditional recycling collection services to take waste off-site, the rStream system recycles plastic on-site at the point of waste generation.”

rStream began as an idea between friends to make a trash can which could recycle plastic in your home.

“With the meteoric rise of additive manufacturing, perhaps ordinary people could have value for raw materials in the long run,” say Goodine and Walko. “However, until more progress has been made in affordable additive manufacturing techniques, it makes more financial sense to create a system that could increase recycling rates by tackling waste management at high traffic venues and local centers.”

Goodine and Walko explain that the rStream technology has its greatest impact in newly emerging mid-sized recycling markets. These markets include high-traffic venues in which single-use plastic bottles, cups, and containers are unavoidable. Examples of high-traffic venues include school cafeterias, sports arenas, theme parks, and cruise ships.

According to Goodine and Walko, “The rStream system includes sorting and cleaning stages to bring material collection and primary recycling in-house. It is designed to utilize intelligent sensing to signal a sorting mechanism which autonomously sorts recyclables from trash. Recyclables can then be cleaned and processed more appropriately. This unlocks the commodity value of recyclables in a cost- and resource-efficient way.”

As Goodine and Walko note, “The [rStream] system's output is sorted clean plastic which, when collected, can be easily converted into a variety of goods, ranging from clothes and manufacturable materials to cutting-edge technology like eco-friendly batteries.”

rStream Recycling has a commitment to begin executing its mission statement with the first prototype piloted at UMass starting in December 2021.

According to Kathy Wicks, who is the Director of Sustainability for UMass Dining, “an rStream system could play a key role in our future waste-diversion system. This project aligns with the UMass Dining values of sustainability, planetary health, innovation, supply chain transparency, and convenience. As the leading generator of waste on the campus, we are excited to see the prototype completed, pilot the system, and gather data on the system’s applicability both in the back and front of the house operations.”

Laura Teicher, the Executive Director of FORGE Innovation, acted as a member of the judges panel during an earlier Innovation Challenge phase and commended the rStream team’s efforts at “solving a real problem and doing the work to understand current waste streams, challenges where the plastic waste is produced, and policy drivers in the recycling game,” as she said.

Goodine is an honors senior mechanical engineering major and student researcher, while Walko is also a senior mechanical engineering major with a minor in engineering management through the Isenberg School of Business.

The rStream Recycling team is advised by: the MIE department’s James Lagrant, who is a Professor of Practice in Manufacturing; MIE Professor Yanfei Xu, who heads the Advanced Polymer Engineering Laboratory; MIE Professor Xian Du, head of the Intelligent Sensing Lab; Kenneth Prevette, a plastic recycling market expert; and Steve Longpre, who is an experienced technology start-up entrepreneur. (March 2021)