New Brunswick business gets smart about milk jug recycling

Moncton, NB — Bernard Morin is on a mission to keep empty plastic milk jugs out of landfills across the province of New Brunswick. With help from Mitacs researcher Rahma Zayoud, an electrical engineering PhD student at Université de Moncton, he has found a smart way to do it.

As president of Thermopak Ltd., a regional packaging company based in Shippagan, N.B., Morin knows firsthand the importance of recycling milk jugs, which contain high-density polyethylene plastic, one of the most valuable plastics for recycling purposes. Not only is there a pressing need to minimize their environmental impact, but he also aims to work with the province to introduce a regulated stewardship program — similar to the way pop and beer bottle recycling is currently encouraged via a refundable tax — so the plastic doesn’t go to waste. “Up until now, there has been no efficient way to collect milk jugs,” he said.

“Today, they are mostly going out with the garbage,” explained Morin, adding that the majority of the province’s 72 recycling centres do not include milk jugs on their list of recyclable items and only one of six landfills has a program for separating milk containers for resale. “Our goal is to introduce a reliable and efficient collection system so that we can successfully upcycle this plastic into a new product,” he said.

According to the Atlantic Dairy Council, one tonne of milk jugs in their original state would fill more than six 40-foot semi-trailers. That amounts to a lot of valuable landfill space that can be saved if plastic jugs are successfully collected and recycled, Morin noted.

Zayoud — whose research is funded by Mitacs, a national not-for-profit organization dedicated to building research-based partnerships to create a more innovative Canada — is working with Thermopak to develop a “smart” system of specially designed milk jug recycling bins that incorporate advanced radio-frequency identification (RFID) and WiFi technology.

Expected to be launched in a pilot project by next year, each bin is being equipped with an RFID tag to easily track its location, a weight sensor to detect when it is full, and an infrared sensor to count each jug that passes through its slot. The bins will be strategically placed at commercial malls or recycling centres, and will communicate information to a web server through a WiFi network.

“Right now, recycling trucks have no way of knowing if a bin is full or not. Our system will track the bins in real time, using web-based technology to determine the most efficient collection route, based on collecting only those bins that are full,” said Zayoud. Once the shortest possible route is established, it will be wirelessly transmitted to display screens located inside the recovery trucks.

Each smart bin will also feature a wireless module designed to sound a buzzer as soon as a truck is within 3.5 metres, helping drivers to easily locate bins that may be hidden by snow or landscaping. “The possibilities of this system are unbelievable,” said Morin. “It means we will save a lot of time and money by not sending trucks out to collect containers that are not yet full.”

In the meantime, Thermopak is working on a parallel project to use the plastic recovered from the milk jugs to produce a new material strong enough to be used in the construction industry. In the future, he plans to investigate other uses for the smart collection technology, including the consideration of smart bins for industrial and commercial use.

“This technology could offer the same features for other recyclables,” said Morin. “Our ultimate goal is to recuperate all plastics currently going to landfill.”

Quick facts:

  • Mitacs is a national, not-for-profit organization that has designed and delivered research and training programs in Canada for 17 years.
  • Working with 60 universities, thousands of companies, and both federal and provincial governments, Mitacs builds partnerships that support industrial and social innovation in Canada.
  • Open to all disciplines and all industry sectors, projects can span a wide range of areas, including manufacturing, business processes, IT, social sciences, design, and more.
  • Mitacs is funded by the Government of Canada and the Government of New Brunswick, along with university and industry partners.