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Finding Her ‘Repurpose’

Entomology Alum’s Startup Works to Protect Farmers and Reduce Plastic Waste

By Emily C. Nunez

woman holds farm plastic

Krisztina Christmon Ph.D. ’23 has created a company to tackle the problem of agricultural plastic waste (below) by collecting and cleaning it for recycling into new products.

Photos by Edwin Remsberg

Growing up in rural Hungary, Krisztina Christmon Ph.D. ’23 always imagined taking over her grandparents’ farm one day.

“They ate what they grew and had a simple, minimalist life,” she recalled fondly. “I spent every summer on their farm, and it was in my genes to be around nature.”

Christmon wanted to return to the farm after college, but her grandfather suffered a fatal accident while burning plastic agricultural waste. By the time she graduated, the farm had been sold, altering her trajectory in life.

Years later, during graduate entomology studies at the University of Maryland, Christmon realized she could honor her grandfather’s memory and support the farming community in a different way: by ensuring farmers never have to burn plastics in the first place.

shelves of farm plastic

In 2021, she co-founded a startup called Repurpose Farm Plastic that aims to collect and clean farmers’ unwanted plastics. Once treated, these items—including soil liners, feed bags, bale wraps and other commonly used items—can be recycled into other useful products.

In addition to giving plastic trash a second life, Christmon is passionate about protecting farmers from the health hazards associated with incineration.

“In the so-called modernized West, farmers still don’t have access to basic trash removal—let alone recycling,” she said. “This fuels me today, because burning plastic waste releases toxic chemicals into the air, harming the environment and even humans.”

Christmon’s business idea was sparked by an email in 2020: a call for proposals to repurpose empty chicken houses on Maryland’s Eastern Shore through the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources’ AgEnterprise Challenge.

“It was the first year of the pandemic, and all I was doing was going for walks around my neighborhood and picking up trash,” she said.

With plastic waste in mind, she entered the contest in hopes of spearheading a project related to recycling. She was paired up with teammates, and in the early planning stages, they discovered that agricultural plastics were both an unresolved problem and an untapped market. They pitched Christmon’s idea of turning poultry houses into mini recycling plants for agricultural plastics, taking first place in the competition.

After winning AgEnterprise, Christmon’s team enrolled in Innovation Corps (I-Corps), an entrepreneurial training program sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Christmon’s mentors encouraged her to turn her idea into a startup, and despite her initial trepidation, she agreed.

“I thought business wasn’t for me—I’m a scientist!” she said. “But when we conducted interviews with farmers, everyone was so eager to talk to us. Every farmer told us they would pay the equivalent of a trash removal service or more for recycling pickup. I thought, ‘OK, if no one else is working on this, I guess it’s going to be me.’”

Christmon launched Repurpose Farm Plastic with help from I-Corps and her co-founder, Benjamin Rickles Ph.D. ’23, a friend studying neuroscience and cognitive science who has a knack for machines. Rickles agreed to build the plastic cleaning equipment, which is currently being scaled up for production.

Their machine—a little larger than a dining table—does not rely on water. It uses a drying technology to remove 99% of the dirt from agricultural plastics, which meets industry standards for certain applications. Once cleaned, these plastics can be handed off to companies that transform them into pellets, and ultimately into furniture, decking, railing and similar items.

Christmon says this not only reduces wastefulness but also serves a greater environmental good.

“If you take plastic to the landfill, it releases greenhouse gases. If you leave it in the field, it breaks down into nanoparticles and goes into our food system. If you burn it, it releases toxic chemicals,” she said. “None of these three options are viable, so the fourth way—our way of thinking—is to put it somewhere that it will last forever.”

Christmon and Rickles hope to start collecting plastic from farms and launch the business soon. Building a startup has been a major time commitment, but she doesn’t mind as long as she’s helping people and the environment in the process.

“It doesn’t feel like work or a hobby,” Christmon said. “It’s just part of me.”



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