The shift to a circular plastics economy requires rethinking all steps of the polymer production – from resource extraction to design, manufacturing, supply chain management, product usage, and waste management. Achieving all of that, in turn, requires a skilled, knowledgeable workforce.
In response to that need, five universities in the United States will start offering modules about sustainable plastics in their curriculum. Arizona State University, Pittsburg State University, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, the University of Missouri, Kansas City, and the University of Southern California were each awarded a $500,000 grant by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
The Training for Improving Plastics Circularity (TIPC) Grant Programme seeks to advance the development of coursework and hands-on training resources in polymer measurement methods, manufacturing, and systems thinking that will promote a skilled workforce.
At Arizona State University, a yearlong course comprised of seven modules will be on offer for undergraduate and graduate students from any academic background. Topics covered will include supply chain management, integration of circular economic systems in sustainable biomaterials, optimisation of sustainable manufacturing processes, and degradable packaging plastics, amongst others.
A portion of the project funding will also be used to instal new technologies at the university’s Biodesign Centre for Sustainable Macromolecular Materials and Manufacturing. For Tim Long, professor of chemical engineering at the university, accessibility to the technologies being used to improve circularity is key to developing a circular economy.
“Our goal is to train the next sustainability leaders in the workforce,” said Long. “To do that, we need novel tools, tools that you wouldn’t normally expect. We want to develop an affordable tool that could find its way to a municipal landfill, or it could find its way to a university that doesn’t have the resources to purchase current highly priced, more-sophisticated instruments.”
Students will help to develop these tools to measure properties such as degradation rates, gas permeability and waste stream separations, he added.