Committed to finding a solution, Christmon along with UMD Neuroscience and Cognitive Science Ph.D. student Benjamin Rickles launched Repurpose Farm Plastic LLC, a scalable business
focused on helping Eastern Shore farmers – and beyond – recycle their plastic waste by 2030.
The idea arose out of a challenge sponsored by the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (AGNR) where Christmon and her team were tasked to find a way to repurpose empty chicken houses. Inspired by the experience, the team wanted to take it a step further so began researching other recycling issues farmers faced and how these issues could be solved.
“We started looking at articles and talking to farmers, and that is when it dawned on us that there is a huge problem with plastics out in rural areas,” said Christmon. “The farmers want to recycle. They want to do the right thing.” The problem is these rural areas have little to no infrastructure - from collection to sorting to cleaning - that can handle farm plastics. The good news is that once it is sorted and cleaned, it can be sent onto the general recycling system. The team set out to find a solution.
“Recycling is not rocket science,” Christmon explains. “You have to collect it, you have to sort it, you have to clean it, you have to shred it." But while farm plastics have an advantage over residential plastics when it comes to sorting (#2 and #4 plastics are used), 50% of the plastic waste collected is soil that needs to be cleaned.
To tackle the cleaning issue, they recruited eight mechanical engineering students from the UMBC Engineering Department (check out the team) whose capstone project is to design and build a prototype to clean the plastics. The machine is scheduled to be completed by end of May, and a pilot program will begin this fall where they can track the collection and the cleaning processes.
Krisztina Christmon & Benjamin Rickles
Drip Irrigation Tube
Did you know? One box of strawberries needs enough plastics the size of a trash bag to grow it.
Together, they make quite a team. Christmon, who grew up in a farming community, brings her creative spirit and passion for the environment (starting a sorting/washing/recycling facility has been a dream of hers) to her role as CEO where she works to build the business. Likewise, Rickles, who serves as CTO, brings his DIY spirit (he's always wanted to build his own plastics recycling machine) to the project working directly with the engineering students on the final prototype. Both continue to work on funding and other sources of support needed to see their dream become a reality, and eventually help other small farming communities struggling with this problem. It is an issue the team believes can be solved via a small-scale, low cost, low energy system anyone can use.
As UMD students, Christmon and Rickles were fortunate to have access to valuable resources including the University of Maryland Extension (UME) which helped connect them with farmers interested in the initiative, and Wye Research & Education Center which supplied the space to collect the plastics and test the prototypes. They also received funding from several sources including UMD Sustainability Office as well as guidance from the National Science Foundation.
We'll keep in touch with Christmon and Rickles in the coming months to see how the project is doing as they continue to work on creating a practical and cost-efficient method to collect, clean and repurpose agricultural plastic waste.
*Since our interview, RFP has received Sustainability Prize at the Pitch Dingman competition! Want to know more about RFP? Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org and/or
**Photo Credit: Top photo and plastics photos by Edwin Remsberg, University of Maryland