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Gutowski focuses on design to boost recycling

It's easy to feel virtuous about tossing a newspaper or Poland Springs bottle into the recycling bin. But is all our recycling actually helping the environment?

Timothy G. Gutowski, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, says not necessarily. Paper deposited in recycling bins, for instance, might end up in a landfill, or might be burned in incinerators.

In his hometown of Newton, Mass., Gutowski found that even though the town collected plastics stamped with numbers 1 through 7, usually only numbers 1 and 2 were being recycled. Recycling is a business, and if it is not profitable to recycle a certain item at a certain time--for instance, if there is not enough demand for a certain grade of paper--the paper does not get recycled, he explained.

And what happens to the assortment of metal, plastic and glass--frozen food containers, Styrofoam boxes, olive oil bottles, etc.--picked up in one fell swoop by the curbside recycling truck? Workers making the minimum wage sort it by hand, and at least some of it gets burned in incinerators, potentially releasing toxic dioxins into the atmosphere.

Gutowski wants to develop a quantitative way to assess the recycling potential of a product and develop a model that can be used for a variety of products.

With the support of the National Science Foundation, Gutowski is part of a team working toward sustainable materials use by identifying, quantifying and facilitating the use of product design parameters that control product recycling.

The goal is to evaluate product designs for their ease of recovering materials and to understand the relationship between product design and various material recycling systems.

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