Plastics Recycling and Sustainability

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Course Overview

Plastics are ubiquitous in our modern world. They provide hygiene and convenience as no other materials can. They are lightweight, durable, are easily formed, and can have a wide range of mechanical properties. This durability, although a positive from the consumer point of view, translates to the fact that plastics can take hundreds of years to decay in landfill conditions. The oceans are quickly becoming a repository of plastic waste as well, and under 10% of what is globally produced is actually recycled. In this course we will discuss some of the limitations of current recycling methods that will help to explain this statistic. We will introduce the various types of recycling, mechanical and chemical, and discuss potential and limitations for these methods. Various examples of current practices in upcycling, downcycling, and reclaiming different types of waste will be given. We will also discuss sustainable sourcing of polymers as well as biodegradable polymers.

  • After taking this course, learners will be able to:
  • Describe the current state of plastics recycling and what the inherent challenges are.
  • Compare some of the potential technologies to improve recycling and achieve reductions in plastic waste and analyze their pros and cons.
  • Identify potential replacements for petroleum derived plastics.

Who Should Attend?

Anyone who wants to learn more about how plastics recycling works and its limitations, as well as future areas of interest.

Course Outline

Module 1 - Current State of Plastics Waste and Recycling

Module 2 - Challenges Intrinsic to Recycling

Module 3 - Mechanical Recycling

Module 4 - Chemical Recycling

Module 5 - Pyrolysis

Module 6 - Upcycling vs. Downcycling

Module 7: Plastics from Sustainable Sources

Module 8: Biodegradable Plastics


Nicole Zacharia

Dr. Zacharia has a background in materials science, with both a bachelor's degree and a PhD in the subject from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her student days were followed by postdoctoral studies at the University of Toronto, time as an assistant professor in mechanical engineering at Texas A&M University, and most recently before joining UW-Madison, time at the University of Akron as an assistant then associate professor of Polymer Engineering.

In addition to teaching at both undergraduate and graduate levels, Dr. Zacharia's interests have included research in polyelectrolyte coacervation as well as novel types of surfaces with special wettability, working on various federally and privately funded research projects. She has published over 40 papers in various international materials and chemistry journals. She has been an actively member of the American Chemical Society, including serving on the executive editorial board for one of its journals.

Upcoming dates (1)

Program Director

Andrea Strzelec

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