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NIST Awards Nearly $3 Million for Educational Programs Focused on Circular Economy to Reduce Plastic Waste

NIST Awards Nearly  Million for Educational Programs Focused on Circular Economy to Reduce Plastic Waste
NIST Awards Nearly  Million for Educational Programs Focused on Circular Economy to Reduce Plastic Waste


N. Hanacek, J. Wang, B. Hayes/NIST

GAITHERSBURG, Md. — The U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has awarded nearly $3 million in total to  six universities to create curricula and programs that will train students to discover and develop solutions to problems presented by our current approaches to the production and consumption of plastics. The grants support an interdisciplinary approach, spanning topics such as materials science, economics, business, and chemical, environmental and systems engineering.

The Training for Improving Plastics Circularity (TIPC) Grant Program seeks to advance the future workforce needed to develop a circular economy for plastics. Today’s economy is considered “linear” — plastics are created from extracting petroleum, used, then thrown into landfills or the environment.  But in a circular economy, plastics would be designed to retain their value through repeated reuse, repair and recycling, with disposal as a last resort. A circular economy requires new manufacturing methods, chemical processes and plastic separation capabilities, as well as new approaches for optimizing how plastic products are designed and how plastics cycle through the value chain. 

“There is a necessity in the workforce to think about materials, including plastics, and design them to be more than single use, but to be reused repeatedly by ideally having infinite lives,” said Kathryn Beers, leader of NIST’s Circular Economy Program. “To do that we need to educate different disciplines, and there is a huge unmet need at the undergraduate level.”   

NIST’s Circular Economy Program aims to make U.S. industries more competitive by helping them prolong the useful life of plastics and other materials safely. NIST scientists are developing new measurements, standards, models and data to better understand the chemical processes at work when used plastics are broken down and formed into new products. They are also working on supplying critical data needed to detect and measure the other chemicals found in formulated plastics.

This is the second year of funding from NIST’s TIPC Grant Program, with last year’s award of $2.5 million split among five universities.  Last year’s recipients have already been improving their curricula through research training courses that give students hands-on experience related to plastics circularity in industry, a minor in plastics sustainability, and a summer workshop on plastics and plastics circularity, among other things.

The TIPC Grant Program will provide each of the following universities up to $500,000 to be spent over the next three years for development and implementation of a variety of curricula and programs:

Auburn University will create a curriculum on plastic recycling that will support both its students and outside professionals in the plastics industry. Students will be given the opportunity to take a new class on the plastic recycling value chain that emphasizes systems thinking and hands-on training modules that teach metrology and how to use equipment relevant to plastic recycling. A series of workshops will also be offered for professionals on polymer recycling and circularity.

Hawai‘i Pacific University will create an interdisciplinary minor on polymer circularity with STEM and business courses and a series of weeklong summer courses for plastic industry professionals. The university’s larger goal is to train the existing and upcoming plastics circularity workforce to foster a circular economy for Hawai‘i. 

Penn State University will work to solve a major issue in plastic circularity: sorting and separating plastics for recycling. The university will create a series of modules on polymer chemistry and life cycle assessment that will be added to several courses for students and used to create trainings for workers in the plastics industry across Pennsylvania.

The University of Houston will develop workforce training programs on the circular plastics economy. These will include a circular plastics credential program, and an internship and reverse internship program, where companies send their employees to spend time in an academic research setting to gain new skills and experience, with industry partners .

The University of South Alabama will design a curriculum around plastic polymer circularity, then integrate it into civil, mechanical, and systems engineering and chemistry courses. It will also be available to other universities, vocational centers, industry professionals and policymakers. Students trained in this curriculum will be well equipped to support circular domestic plastics industries in the Gulf Coast.

The University of Toledo will embed plastic circularity training into new and existing lab courses in chemical engineering and cosmetic science and will teach several technical methods for plastic circularity, including circular product design, material science, and mechanical and chemical recycling. The grant will also place students with industry partners in the Midwest working on plastic circularity through co-ops (paid industry experience) and internships.

Originally published at https://www.nist.gov/news-events/news/2024/03/nist-awards-nearly-3-million-educational-programs-focused-circular-economy