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Photo courtesy of NYU Abu Dhabi

Plastic Recycling Lab

NYUAD's Plastic Recycling Lab and the Precious Plastics movement attempt to make plastic recycling accessible.

As night falls on the highline and students make their way to their rooms or to the library — which in some cases feels interchangeable — another part of campus begins to buzz with life. In the B2 basement, at around 11 p.m., Serco employees begin the process of waste management at the university. Trash collected from around campus is sorted into recyclables, hazardous waste and other. Compactors run at full steam as the generated waste is divided and prepared for the time when it will be taken away to other facilities.
Hidden in the corner, next to large amounts of compacted plastic bottles, is a lonely storage room, recently converted into NYU Abu Dhabi’s own Plastic Recycling Lab. It might not look like much, with its grey doors and broken door stopper, but it is now a part of the much larger sustainability and waste management effort kickstarted by NYUAD and Serco.
The Plastic Recycling Lab was started by Assistant Professor of Practice of Design Professor Felix Beck and Director of the Lab for Narrative Technologies and Spatial Installations. Inspired by the Precious Plastic movement, Beck designed the recycling machines with the help of several engineering students. The machines were built to promote a greater awareness of plastic use on campus. Beck considers the work the lab is carrying out “a niche, an area in which the NYUAD community and the UAE that [isn’t typically] covered.”
Beck highlighted that although the lab is funded by the NYUAD Engineering Department, he hopes that “the lab is driven by collaboration and by multiple departments, with engineers looking into material science and social scientists looking into laws and policies.”
The machinery inside the lab, which includes a powerful shredder, is sourced from the Precious Plastic blueprints for similar machines. The movement, started by Dave Hakkens from the Netherlands, aims to make plastic recycling more accessible. With hundreds of labs around the world, the movement has empowered people to recycle and educate their communities, joining the fight against plastic pollution.
The Plastic Recycling Lab opened its doors during the Fall 2018 semester, during the Precious Plastic WANA conference held at NYUAD. Since then, the lab has started collaborations with other groups looking to set up their own recycling labs in the UAE.
At the moment, the lab works primarily with bottle caps from plastic bottles used for water or juice. Every two weeks, a large container of bottle caps makes its way down to the basement, to be washed and dried. They are then sorted by type and color and prepped to be made into new objects. While the caps are only a small representation of the plastic consumption on campus and in the UAE generally, they are often mistaken by marine life for food or shells.
The lab plays an innovative role at NYUAD and the UAE. Although steps have been taken to reduce plastic consumption at the university, many students fail to use recycling bins properly. The UAE’s economy is still largely dependant on oil and the many products derived from it. Plastic consumption in the UAE is one of the highest in the world. According to The National, “the UAE has the fourth-highest level of bottled water consumption in the world.” The Plastic Recycling Lab’s first mission is to educate the community and discourage single-use plastics, with, as Beck put it, “students embedded into the creation of the lab and learning in the space”.
In the future, the lab hopes to host workshops that touch upon different aspects of the recycling process, collaborating with schools in the UAE and the broader community.
Mari Velasquez-Soler is Deputy Features Editor. Email her at
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