PEI·Waves of Change

The future of plastics: UPEI engineering students get hands-on lesson in sustainability

First year students at UPEI's School of Sustainable Design Engineering are getting a hands-on lesson in plastics and sustainability. The students collected all the plastics they used over a week, then tried to reduce them in week two.

Students collected all the plastics they used over a week, then tried to reduce them in week two

The students looked at all of the plastics to determine what they were made of and if they could be recycled. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

First year students at UPEI's School of Sustainable Design Engineering are getting a hands-on lesson in plastics and sustainability.

It's part of a new first year course called Sustainability in Engineering Design.

"The idea is they're to see how much we consume or don't even think about consuming, as well as what happens when we are ready to throw away a piece of plastic," said associate professor Amy Hsiao.

The groups documented what they collected in week one compared to week two when they tried to reduce how much plastic they used. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

One week of plastic waste

Hsiao calls the project a "living lab" as the students collected all the plastics they used over a week.

Then they got together in groups and looked at each other's collection of waste. 

"They weighed their plastics to figure out how much they collected and they categorized their plastics," said Hsiao.

"They also looked at energy used to create these plastics as well as to recycle them and the C02 that's emitted in manufacturing and recycling them."

Associate professor Amy Hsiao listens as the students discuss what they learned from the living lab. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

For the second part of the assignment, the engineering students decided as a group three easy ways to reduce the amount of plastic that they used.

Reducing plastics

Darvin Patel collected 300 grams of plastic in week one, including plastic bags from grocery stores, as well as plastic containers and coffee lids. 

"In the second week I collected just 50 grams because I started purchasing from the farmer's market and buying local and using my reusable cup," said Patel.

These are the plastics that Amy Hsiao personally collected during week two of the living lab experiment. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

Russell Peden said he already tries to limit his use of single use plastics, but still learned about the process.

"The initial phase where you create plastics is very easy, very cheap, and recycling actually takes a little bit more energy than that but it's very important to get the most use out of the plastics that you create rather than just creating something new," Peden said.

"The biggest surprise was just the amount of waste that you can accumulate over the course of one week."

The students said much of the plastic they collected came from food packaging. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

Alyssa Laughlin said the living lab is a good introduction to the sustainable engineering program.

"Thinking about sustainability is continuous throughout this," Laughlin said. 

"But this project makes you think for yourself and think about what you're going to do personally to affect the planet and your impact on it, either positive or negative."

The students also looked at energy used to create the plastics as well as to recycle them and the C02 that's emitted to create these plastics in manufacturing and recycling them.

Foundation for future years

Hsiao was pleased with how the students responded to the living lab.

"This is a new course to introduce all of our new students because we are the sustainable design program, a course where we specifically focus on sustainability in year one," Hsiao said.

"Then they see it being built up technically whether you go into wind or solar, whether you go into bio-resources, you have that one class foundation to build up on." 

As part of the living lab, the students sorted the plastics and weighed them. They tried to reduce their total weight of plastics in week two of the assignment. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

For their second class project, the engineering students will look for ways to make the UPEI campus more sustainable.

The goal is that some of the ideas will actually be pitched to the university and put into practice.

About the Author

Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water rowing, travelling to Kenya or walking her dog. Nancy.Russell@cbc.ca