Plexiglass recycling at ISU invites 'mindset change' about pandemic materials

Phillip Sitter
Ames Tribune

Some protective plexiglass barriers that have kept people at a safe distance during the pandemic are being taken down, but then what?

It's difficult to recycle material that doesn't degrade.

And that is why an Iowa State University professor is asking his students to imagine a future for pandemic-related plexiglass by thinking outside the box when it comes to recycling.

Or just taking the box and turning it into something else.

“I think we all owe it to the material, if anything, to think about ‘Can this be used in another way?’” said Dan Neubauer, a professor of industrial design at ISU.

Neubauer ended up leading students' design efforts after staff in the university's facilities and sustainability offices wondered about the future of plexiglass and then reached out to him.

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What's so bad about some plastic going to a landfill?

Plexiglass is an acrylic plastic material that Neubauer said is difficult to recycle — which has meant that most of it that's been thrown out since its invention has ended up as trash somewhere.

"It doesn’t degrade. It does not break down," he said.

Aside from taking up space in landfills, Neubauer said throwing away plexiglass is an unnecessary waste of the resources it took to make it, because it's still a usable material.

Maxwell Crowe, an Iowa State University senior in industrial design, works May 1, 2021 on an adjustable height side table made from recycled plexiglass, designed by Payton Stelling.

“It’s a mindset change. Yeah, we’ve been throwing this material into landfills for 80 years or more, but we shouldn’t have been," he said.

He cited from the European "Renewable Matter" magazine that the production of 1 kilogram of plexiglass — about 2.2 pounds — requires about 4.4 pounds of oil and releases more than 12 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, hospitals needed face shields. Businesses and schools installed plexiglass barriers. Forbes reported in May 2020 that America's largest plexiglass manufacturer made enough each week for about 3 million face shields and 200,000 barriers. 

According to Renewable Matter, a U.K. company's production of plexiglass increased 300% between February and March 2020.

The broader U.S. plastic manufacturing industry was the only part of the nation's chemical industries to show positive growth amid the pandemic economic recession in 2020, according to the American Chemistry Council, an advocacy organization for chemical industries.

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The ACC reported last month that plastic production in April totaled 8 billion pounds — a 14.5% increase compared to April 2020.

“We need to think about material as far as its potential and its life cycle," Neubauer said.

How can plexiglass be recycled?

Neubauer said his students made plans last fall, and this spring came up with design models in studio for what to do with plexiglass recovered from campus as it's taken down.

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Students came up with almost two dozen designs, including desk organizers, tablet stands, display cases, tracing boards for children learning the alphabet or numbers, tables, figurines, campus art installations and even class rings.

Neubauer said there's still no definite plan, but there may someday be a "swap day" where people on campus who no longer want plexiglass barriers or want to replace damaged ones can share material, and some of it may go to the College of Design's material hub.

He said he let his students have creative freedom with their designs, and some embraced that it's material that was used in response to a pandemic, while others did not.

"Either way, the material has a history. All materials do, and it’s a decision whether to call attention to it," Neubauer said. 

He said there's an opportunity for catharsis in working with the material post-pandemic. 

“Yes, it’s (emotionally) charged, and you may want to forget that, but you can do a lot with this material," he said.

Neubauer said most of the plexiglass his students have worked with was in pretty good shape — at worst, maybe broken into chunks or written on, but usually just with a few small holes in it — and it can be repurposed using items and techniques including woodshop tools, laser-cutting, heat-strip benders used in the plastic industry and vacuum forming or thermoforming machines.

If social distancing barriers are needed again in the future, Neubauer said transparent wood might become a more sustainable alternative to plexiglass or even traditional glass — and yes, that means there are see-through pieces of wood. 

How should people approach everything else they bought or prepared to get rid of because of the pandemic?

Living through the pandemic presented many more material changes in people's daily lives than just interacting with plexiglass barriers — there were disposable or cloth face masks, hand sanitizer and soap dispensers, and more than a year of time at home to clean out closets or work with new hobbies like arts and crafts.

"Do a little digging before you throw things out, and think about what you could make," Neubauer said.

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He said disposable masks are made of plastic that could, in theory, be ground up and turned into insulation or bedding, or turned into sheet material using a heat press — but all that would require specialized equipment and facilities.

As for cloth masks, he said those could present a good opportunity for teaching children how to sew and make coin purses or collection bags for things such as rocks or marbles. 

Neubauer said he has not yet made anything out of pandemic supplies for his home, but he has made a window well cover out of polycarbonate sheet.

Phillip Sitter covers education for the Ames Tribune, including Iowa State University and PreK-12 schools in Ames and elsewhere in Story County. Phillip can be reached via email at psitter@gannett.com. He is on Twitter @pslifeisabeauty.