Credit: N. Hanancek, J. Wang, B. Hayes/NIST

The US Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Gaithersburg, Maryland, has awarded $500,000 to each of five universities to develop new curricula for students who are interested in helping to solve the growing problem of plastic waste. The new curricula will focus on chemistry, economics, business management, entrepreneurship and related topics.

The Training for Improving Plastics Circularity (TIPC) Grant Program aims to develop the future workforce needed to grow a circular economy for plastics. A circular economy is one in which materials retain their value through repeated reuse, repair and recycling, and are finally discarded only as a last resort.

A circular economy requires new manufacturing methods, chemical processes and separation capabilities, as well as new approaches for optimizing how plastics cycle through the industrial supply chain.

“We need a skilled workforce that can think holistically about plastics and create new business opportunities while also addressing an urgent environmental problem,” said Kathryn Beers, leader of NIST’s Circular Economy Program. “The five institutions receiving TIPC grants take different approaches, but all are creating innovative programs that focus on this important issue.”

NIST’s Circular Economy Program aims to support U.S. industry in implementing changes that prolong the useful life of plastics. Among other things, NIST scientists are developing measurements, models and data to better understand the chemical processes at work when used plastics are broken down and formed into new products.

The following universities will receive $500,000 each from the NIST TIPC Grant Program to be spent over three years:

Arizona State University will create seven curriculum modules that can be used to support a new certificate or degree in sustainable macromolecular materials and manufacturing.

Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas, will update and improve its plastics engineering technology degree program with lecture-based and hands-on laboratory learning modules focused on plastics circularity in the materials, design and processing phases of production.

The University of Massachusetts at Lowell will develop case study modules for undergraduate and graduate students in its Plastics Engineering Department and transfer those into parallel curricula in the Mechanical Engineering, Chemical Engineering and Chemistry Departments. This effort will test transferability to related fields and assess the potential for expansion to other fields such as materials science and engineering.

The University of Missouri, Kansas City, will develop interdisciplinary course curricula in plastics circularity, with three different courses in the Division of Energy, Matter and Systems. These will include a critical thinking course, a research skill training course and a polymer characterization lab course.

The University of Southern California will create a multidisciplinary minor in plastics circularity that will be available to anyone acquiring major degrees in chemistry, chemical engineering, environmental engineering, environmental science or business/entrepreneurship. This project will also create a summer school targeting community college and primarily undergraduate serving institutions.