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Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT

What will happen to all the plexiglass barriers Austin businesses set up during the pandemic?

Tuesday, July 13, 2021 by Sangita Menon, KUT

From grocery stores to banks, clear plastic barriers have become an everyday sight over the last year. Large acrylic sheets, or plexiglass, have been set up in front of cash registers and reception desks to reduce the risk of transmitting the coronavirus. But when the threat of the pandemic passes, what will happen to all of that plastic?

Local businesses may opt to leave the barriers up permanently or store them for reuse during flu season, for example. If they want to get rid of them, though, recycling may not be an option. Many local recycling facilities won’t accept the material.

KUT contacted 20 recycling facilities in the area and they all said they don’t take plexiglass.

Balcones Resources, one of the two companies the city of Austin contracts with to process single-stream recycling, takes in cardboard, paper, and containers made of glass, aluminum, tin and plastic. But Victoria Acevedo, the education coordinator at Balcones Resources, said its plant isn’t designed to handle plexiglass so it doesn’t accept it.

Businesses can opt to keep up the shields going forward or store them for future use. But many could end up in landfills. Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT

“Plexiglass is one of those plastics that is a little hard to recycle and find an end market for,” Acevedo said. “We have markets for our cardboard, for our paper, for our plastics …. but plexiglass is one of those little difficult ones that (we) unfortunately can’t take in nor do we bale up and ship to any of our processors.”

But plexiglass can be repurposed. That’s in line with the goals of Austin Creative Reuse, a nonprofit that resells donated materials  varying from traditional arts and crafts supplies to power tools. The nonprofit wants consumers to prioritize reusing materials for projects. It accepts donations from people and businesses and sells them below market price.

Jen Mack, a manager at the nonprofit, said Austin Creative Reuse sells plexiglass for about a dollar or less per square foot.

“Plexiglass is a really great material for artists to use, and especially in those squares that the shields are in,” Mack said. “There’s just a lot of usable space on that. So, yeah, why throw it away?”

Mack says the plexiglass can be used to make jewelry, decorative coasters and windows for sheds or children’s toy houses.

But she says Austin Creative Reuse is a small nonprofit with limited resources, including storage. The group wants to divert as much of the plexiglass away from landfills as possible but can’t take all of it.

“If all the Costcos and all the HEBs in Austin would donate to us, I don’t know that we could handle all of that at once,” she said.

Austin Habitat for Humanity ReStore, a discount home improvement store and donation center, is also accepting donated plexiglass for resale. According to its website, the organization wants to provide low-cost building materials and keep reusable items out of the landfill.

Pat Mallett, who works at Hometown Recycling, a commercial recycling service provider, said the organization has gotten a few plexiglass boards already. The organization isn’t able to recycle it, but gardeners pick them up to make greenhouse windows.

“People are very creative,” Mallett said. “They’ll think of ways to reuse it as long as they have access to it.”

Photo caption: Plexiglass shields are set up in front of cash registers at HEB to protect workers and customers during the Covid-19 pandemic.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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