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A new machine comprised of a conveyor belt leading to what resembles a huge, blue, clothes-dryer drum may revolutionize the way certain plastics are recycled.

The innovative machine, researched, designed and built by Utah State University industrial technology and education department (ITE), will be commercially tested in California during April, department head Maurice Thomas said.The machine is specifically designed to separate polystyrene from other garbage, according to industrial technology associate professor Reed Nielsen. Polystyrene is used in foam hamburger boxes, coffee cups and lids for soft drink cups.

A demonstration says it all. A few bags of donated garbage from local fast-food outlets are sprinkled on the conveyer belt - drink cups, paper, straws and french fries. The switch is thrown, the belt carries the debris into the turning drum. In minutes the plastic lies waiting at the other end.

Thomas says Huntsman Chemical and seven other large plastics manufacturers cooperated to build plants around the United States to reuse polystyrene.

Why? Polystyrene currently makes up 7 percent to 10 percent of the material in American landfills. It is pushing our landfill capacity when it could be recycled.

Still a major recycling obstacle remained - getting it out of the other material in the restaurant business "waste stream."

With part of a grant to USU from Huntsman, Thomas and Nielsen investigated the method recyclers around the country use to separate recyclable materials from the rest of the garbage.

They were stunned by what they found. Right here in modern America the "bag lady" technique is used by state-of-the-art companies.

Sorting is still done by hand by humans hunkering over a conveyor belt - messy, smelly, labor-intensive and inefficient. Much of the recyclable material is missed. It continues on to the landfill, and there it remains.

Thomas and Nielsen decided to concentrate on that one aspect of the process, automating the separation of polystyrene from the rest of the garbage.

They took the idea to the Utah Department of Community and Economic Development, which provided additional funding. The only department stipulation was that when the design is complete, licensing to produce the machine will go to a Utah company.

The first test should come in April, Thomas said, in a plant where about 100 tons of waste per day are laboriously sorted.

Thomas estimates the machine will market for around $100,000.