116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
COVID-vaccinated Iowans are tossing their masks and ditching the Plexiglas barriers that for the past year-plus served both as protectors but also emblems of fear and isolation endemic to a pandemic-plagued world.
And while masks can be easy to recycle or reserve in case of another surge or viral emergency, large sheets of acrylic glass can be harder to reuse, repurpose or materially reprocess.
That Plexiglas problem seemed a perfect fit for Iowa State University industrial design associate teaching professor Dan Neubauer and his spring-semester “design for social impact” class.
“I had the opportunity to learn about the great work that Dan has done with students related to considering a community challenge and a community need and finding solutions,” said ISU Office of Sustainability Director Merry Rankin about internal discussions over what to do with Iowa State’s hundreds of barriers once they’re no longer needed.
“I said, let me check in with an opportunity to maybe engage students,” she said. “And, from there, Dan took it and ran with it.”
ISU facilities, planning and management began thinking about this problem in the fall — even as COVID-19 raged across Iowa, the nation, and the world, according to Rankin.
“We were being very optimistic that at some point we will at least not need all of them,” she said. “And the key to sustainability is trying to be as proactive as we can. To look forward and say, what challenges might we face? So we have the time to be creative, to be strategic, and not necessarily just reactionary.”
In the spring, Neubauer’s 15-week, six-credit course starting its exploration of Plexiglas alternatives by counting — taking stock of the campus’ 400 “known barriers” and then sweeping the campus for others, discovering another 100-some.
“After that, we started to get the students to really start doing material exploration,” he said. “I really wanted them to lean into the thermoplastic nature of the material. You can heat it up. You can cut it up. You can bend it, form it. It's incredibly pliable. It's a great material.”
A waste stream of largely untouched or minimally-damaged material — save the errant initials and hearts scratched into it — is unique, according to Neubauer.
“You don’t run into that all the time,” he said. “Especially when you’re looking for upcycle opportunities.”
His students did a lot of cutting, shaping, melting and reforming — all “with varying degrees of success and failure.”
“That was probably the most fun for me,” Neubauer said. “To push them to try different things and see, OK, this didn't work so let's move on. Let's try something else.”
In addition to material exploration, the class discussed the “charged nature” of the barriers used to keep at bay a devastating virus that's upended, and ended, lives around the world.
“When you're using a material that’s been wasted or whatnot, it has a provenance,” Neubauer said. “Whether you choose to embrace that or move away from it was a really cathartic discussion to have with the students.”
Some of the student designs shed the Plexiglas’ traumatic history. Others incorporated it.
“You saw people take different stances within their designs and the directions they were heading, whether they wanted to embrace the idea that these were recycled COVID barriers,” he said. “Or no, I want to move past that … I don't want to stamp it as COVID.”
Some students morphed the barriers into showcases for artwork; poster and picture frames; containers for things like hardware and tools; desk organizers; laptop tables; and dry erase boards.
One student created a tablet-like device allowing parents to slip worksheets between two cuts of Plexiglas so kids could practice letter-writing, for example.
Some made memorabilia — like key chains.
What didn’t work?
Some students made pellets out of the material in hopes of melting it down and pouring the acrylic into various molds — like for jewelry. But — due to equipment limitations, with some students still at home and forced to use kitchen ovens — Neubauer said success was limited.
“It didn’t work that well,” he said. “But there’s possibility for it to work if we had the right facilities.”
Other students considered shaping it for use as furniture — although the sweeping chair design one student tried wouldn’t have supported human weight without more fortification.
In late January, Rankin and Ayodeji Oluwalana, recycling and special events coordinator for ISU Facilities Planning and Management, sent an email to building supervisors asking for numbers of barriers, expectations for further use, and help collecting the material they no longer want.
“We are getting ahead of the game on potential waste from this material when they are either no longer needed or broken,” the email read. “We are now exploring reuse opportunities to divert them from landfilling and support our zero waste efforts at Iowa State.”
A campus sustainability plan aims to divert 85 percent of university waste from landfills by 2025. And its Plexiglas plans look beyond the campus — as the whole world soon could be strapped with a mountain of clear acrylic sheets.
“We’re moving away from the status quo of not only impacting our own immediate community, but how folks can use our model to impact the country and world,” Oluwalana said.
Although many barriers remain up across Iowa State, recycle and reuse efforts — as they come down — could take several modes. Individuals could reach out to Neubauer’s students for help reformatting a single or handful of now unnecessary barriers. They also could seek help upcycling the material — improving its quality for a similar use that doesn’t necessarily involving cutting or reforming.
Students eventually could amass a group of barriers — like 50 — to improve for resale, like at the bookstore. Or they could help arrange trades between campus spaces removing barriers and others wanting more for various purposes.
The campus also aims to coordinate plans to recycle material that’s too damaged to salvage.
And for community members looking to recycle or upcycle their barriers, Rankin suggested several options — like using a spray adhesive to create a dry erase board or practice art canvass, tasking it for storage space, or cutting it down to create a small desk, shelf, picture frame, or even puppy gate.
“If someone wants to go another step and maybe start bending it themselves, it's pretty simple,” Neubauer said. “You can heat it up in the oven.”
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette. Comments: (319) 339-3158; firstname.lastname@example.org