Recycling and Re-purposing of Plastics

Project: Design a low-cost solution for re-purposing plastic waste

Plastics are everywhere, and it is nearly impossible not to use them. The chemical industry produces several hundred million tons of plastic every year. We use plastics to make electronics, toys, water bottles, and countless other consumer products. But where does all this plastic end up? Some of it in garbage piles, some of it in landfills, but a lot of it in our oceans. In fact, there is a giant garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean that covers more than a thousand miles in size.

Our goal in this section is to gain a basic understanding of what plastics are, and how they are made. Then, we take a closer look at the global plastic problem and what strategies can be used to mitigate the plastic waste problem. We explore several options, such as using plastic waste as fuel for electric power plants, recycling, or using it for different purposes. This section has hands-on laboratory activities where student teams investigate to what extent different types of plastics are biodegradable.

In additional team-based project experiences, students learn how to apply the design process for re-purposing waste plastic. The idea is to create low-cost products that could be used, for example, to fill potholes in unpaved dirt roads, or to provide traction for vehicles that get stuck in muddy roads. Coming up with creative solutions could help not only managing plastic waste, but also contribute to fixing pothole-riddled unpaved roads in the rain forest areas around the globe.

Throughout the semester, students will learn technical communication, creative problem solving, and teamwork. The students will write a report on the results of the plastic biodegradability experiments. They will also make a presentation documenting their progress toward designing, building, and testing a prototype solution for re-purposing plastic waste.