The leading academic research center for plastics recycling will close Oct. 1, the victim of public and industry indifference and tightening state research budgets. Rutgers University is disbanding its 11-year-old Center for Plastics Recycling Research. Once a million-dollar research program with a staff of 18, the recycling research center now operates with two employees on an $80,000 grant from Rutgers.
Coincidentally, the center will close the same day Union Carbide Corp. shuts its high density polyethylene recycling plant. Both centers are in Piscataway, N.J.
Rutgers faculty and government officials cited several reasons for the decision to close the center: dwindling contributions from the plastics industry, a perceived decline in the necessity and practicality of plastics recycling, and a change in research emphasis by the university and st ate agencies.
The remaining staff members hope to move into the faculty of the school's department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Thomas Nosker may stay on as director of the Plastics and Composites Group. Richard Renfree w ill hold the title of project manager.
``To me, it sends a message that an emphasis on the environmental aspect of recycling is diminishing,'' said Richard Lampo, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers materials expert in Champaign, Ill., w ho has worked with the Rutgers program since 1991. ``The bad part about moving them [into the engineering department] is it takes away their identity as a plastics recycling center.''
The Corps' Construction Productivity Advancement Research program, which involves Rutgers, is also on hold. At one time, the two groups were involved in several plastic lumber research projects, worth nearly $1 million.
In August 1995 the Corps effectively terminated a major project involving plastic lumber railroad ties to serve the 12,000 miles of Army-controlled domestic railroads, in part due to congressionally mandated Corps budget cuts.
``Losing that CPAR project impacted Rutgers and myself. It was a major blow to the university and to me personally, because it was money I was counting on,'' Lampo said.
Lampo chairs ASTM's plastic lumber section.
Faculty members pointed to a decline in funding from the Plastics Recycling Founda tion, which changed its focus and name in 1994 to the Packaging Research Foundation, as a major reason for the center's closing.
Wayne Pearson, executive director of the Kennett Square, Pa.-based, industry-funded foundation, said t he group's mission "needed to be broadened" in the eyes of members, which have included Procter & Gamble, Hunt-Wesson and Kraft Foods.
Members up until 1989 were Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola.
"The package innovation must be preserved in our society," he said as the reason for emphasis of packaging over recycling.
"I think you'll see the railroad companies step up and develop the railroad ties.
"Alan Robbins, president of the Plastic Lumber Association in Akron, said the switch to Rutgers' engineering department may be for the good.
``From my perspective, what they're doing now is more engineering-related and acquaints the engineering community to the use of these recycled materials.
``It fosters work towards getting the performance specifications into a format the traditional engineering community can concentrate on. It's going to be much more meaningful work than what they had been doing,'' he said.
The Center for Plastics Recycling Research was founded with seed money from the then-brand-new New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology. Jay Brandinger, executive director of the commission in Trenton since 1991, noted, ``The decision to close the center has nothing to do with us. It was a decision made by the university.''
The center's staff members ``completed their mission,'' he said.
``The commission does not fund indefinitely. Centers have to develop alternate sources of funding. We try and help that by insisting that our money be matched one-to-one [from industry] for the center,'' Brandinger said.
Instead of recycling, the commission in 1997 will allocate $1 million toward life-cycle enginee ring of a range of materials, including plastics. The funds will go to Rutgers, the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Stevens Institute of Technology.
Professors at the plastics recycling center were not tenured, and thus not paid by the university, but rather directly through grants.
Ali Maher, chairman of the Rutgers civil and environmental engineering department, expressed hope that the two remaining staffers would secure research funding.
Maher said the center's operating deficit was shielded for some time from the university by a diplomatically adroit scientist. That ended in March with the death from cancer of Mel McLaren, at one time the head of Rutgers' ceramics research, and one of the driving forces in fiber optics research and plastics recycling research at Rutgers.
According to state and Rutgers faculty sources, McLaren kept information about the materials center's budget deficit, which at one poi nt ran as high as $600,000, from the university's administration.
The center's closing comes as its researchers are in the final stages of securing a new patent to produce a blow molding resin from commingled waste.
At the same time , as a result of the center's research, the university has a stake in the estimated $700 million spent annually to replace 18 million to 20 million track ties on U.S. railroads. Rutgers holds the patent on a superstrength recycled plastic railroad tie and is testing its design in conjunction with a Florida recycling firm and at least two railroad companies.
Both patents involve the use of the most humble of commingled plastics, the ``curbside tailings'' consisting of waste plastics left over after more valuable bottles are sorted out. Post-industrial scrap also is used in the patented mix.
Nosker and Renfree are negotiating with an oil company, which they would not identify, to help them secure the patent to make bottle resin from tailings, Nosker said. Coextruded with a virgin outer layer, the plastic resists blowout and could cut the cost of using recycled material, he said.
Renfree said that patent could die unless someone comes up with lawyers' fees - $5,000-$10,000 - to file the patent properly. But Renfree said talks stalled ``a few months back.''