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High School Students Learn about Plastics Recycling, Sustainability

Youth Are Taught Lessons on How to Make a Difference and Change the World

Students participate in the Plastics Sustainability Forum Photo by Edwin L. Aguirre
Lowell High School and Greater Lawrence Technical High School students participated in this year’s Plastics Sustainability Forum held at the Saab Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center (ETIC) on North Campus.

11/17/2021
By Edwin L. Aguirre

Fifty students from Lowell High School and Greater Lawrence Technical High School, along with their teachers, learned about plastics recycling and environmental sustainability during the Plastics Sustainability Forum, held recently at the Saab Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center (ETIC) on North Campus.

“The forum was a great way for UMass Lowell to get the word out about our shared values and the advanced sustainability research and education we offer,” said Plastics Engineering Assoc. Prof. Meg Sobkowicz-Kline.

Aside from tours of the molding, polymer synthesis and bioplastics labs at ETIC and Ball Hall, the students also heard about plastics issues and industry positions from guest panelists that included Conor Carlin, the Society of Plastics Engineers’ vice president of sustainability; April Herz, the City of Lowell’s recycling enforcement coordinator; and Cheryl Sayer, director of engineering, co-injection R&D and production at Milacron in Rowley, Massachusetts.

Sumudu Lewis, director of UML’s UTeach teacher training program, moderated the discussion.

According to Herz, nearly five pounds of waste are produced per person per day in the U.S., totaling more than 292.4 million tons in a year.

“Consumers are responsible for their waste,” Herz said. “Lots of recyclable items end up in the trash stream.”

Sayer, a Lowell High School graduate and double River Hawk who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical and plastics engineering in 1991 and 2008, respectively, said the UMass Lowell lab presentations demonstrated to students the hands-on work being done on biopolymers and recyclability to address plastics sustainability issues.

ETIC lab tour Photo by Edwin L. Aguirre
Plastics Engineering Assoc. Prof. Meg Sobkowicz-Kline, right, talked to students about the chemistry of biodegradable plastics during a tour of the ETIC lab.
“Industry uses these bioplastics and recycled plastics to manufacture sustainable products such as biodegradable, single-use packaging for coffee capsules,” she said.

Carlin reminded students that the environment is everyone’s shared responsibility.

“Everyone has to [work] to protect what sustains us all,” he said. “Difficult problems are complex and messy. Sometimes there isn’t a perfect solution. We don’t know as much as we think we do – technology can’t solve every problem.”

During the panel discussion, the speakers and the students addressed two challenges – developing a sustainable design of plastic products and controlling demand with public policy.

In the first challenge, the students were asked to think which material – wood, metal, glass or plastic – is the most sustainable.

“The answer isn’t so simple,” said Prof. David Kazmer of the Department of Plastics Engineering, who is the event’s organizer.

“You would have to think about how much material, energy and cost are needed to form the product, how the product would perform when made of different materials, and what happens to the material at the end of the product’s life.”

In the second challenge, the group addressed the question of how society should best control demand and ensure the sustainability of our natural resources related to plastics. Some local and state policies currently being considered include bans on selling plastic disposable products such as grocery bags and Styrofoam cups, requiring manufacturers to recycle their products, and taxes on plastics supplied as raw materials and the amount of carbon dioxide produced.

Sobkowicz-Kline was impressed with how the students responded to the challenges.

Panel of speakers Photo by Edwin L. Aguirre
The forum’s panel of speakers included, from left, Conor Carlin of the Society of Plastics Engineers, April Herz of the City of Lowell and Cheryl Sayer of Milacron.
“The students’ participation in the panel discussion was extraordinary,” she said. “They demonstrated high-level understanding of the complexity around plastics sustainability, including the interplay between technology, society and business concerns. I was impressed with their contributions to the discussion, and I think we all learned from them as well. UMass Lowell would be lucky to have any of these students to come study engineering.”

Positive Feedback

Danielle Ahern, a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics) teacher at Greater Lawrence Technical High School (GLTHS), said the field trip was a great learning experience for her students. 

“It helped open our students’ eyes to the global plastic pollution problem and know they can be an active part of the solution,” she said.

The students also found the forum a great experience.

“The forum was very informative. I never thought that disposal of plastics was an issue,” said Noel Pichardo, a STEAM student at GLTHS.

Fellow GLTHS STEAM student Sareliz Gonzalez agreed. “Before the field trip, I would not think about the plastic I used, but now I understand better how the choices I make impact the world,” she said.

“My experience at UMass Lowell was very fun and educational. I was able to see the machines they use to make or help recycle plastic. I also learned about different materials that would better suit different needs, and how my community and I could help the environment,” said Diani Lopez, also a GLTHS STEAM student.

At the end of the forum, the students were asked to write a position paper about what they had learned and submit their work to Kazmer for judging. Awards will be given Nov. 29.

“Project-based learning is a great way to teach. The students got to see real processes and debate real problems, which helps them better understand the content in an applied context,” said Lewis.

A Great Way to Earn a Living

During her talk, Sayer praised the university’s plastics engineering program, telling the students that it’s affordable and world-renowned. 

“Very few schools offer it. It’s top-notch and well-respected by industry,” she said.

Sayer added that a bachelor’s degree in plastics engineering from UML opens up great job opportunities in engineering, manufacturing, management, sales and other areas, as well as career advancement and leadership opportunities. 

“It’s a great way to make a living,” she said.

Sobkowicz-Kline hopes the event sparks student interest in plastics engineering.

“The future of the plastics industry depends on the supply of a well-trained workforce that can address the sustainability challenges,” she said. “We hope events like the Plastics Sustainability Forum would help us fill the pipeline with diverse, ethical and creative engineers.”