Plastics for Purpose: Taking Plastic Waste and Making Something Beautiful

Recycling is becoming a larger issue. Waynesburg University and Greene County currently do not have their own recycling programs to help solve the problem of plastic waste at a local level. To help solve the issue, a group of seven Waynesburg University professors  have worked together to find a way for old plastics to be reused to create something entirely new.

Over the course of the fall 2021 semester, students in the Entrepreneurial Leadership program have participated in a project called “Plastics for Purpose.” They have gone through the process of collecting and learning about plastic waste to then melting it down to be able to create new items that are functional and can be sold.

In January 2021, the Entrepreneurial Leadership faculty fellows talked about creating a class where the goal was, “not just to talk about [a problem], but really begin with the problem and by the end of the semester, have done something we could actually execute here on campus that begins to make a social change,” said Melinda Walls, chair for Entrepreneurial Leadership and a lead instructor for the “Plastics for Purpose” project.

The Entrepreneurial Leadership faculty fellows decided that the problem of plastic waste would be the problem they wanted to tackle. 

“We thought, ‘What if we did a team talk class where we all could bring our own different lenses that we see the world in together and give the students a true interdisciplinary experience on solving a problem?’” Walls said. 

Students in the class initially came up with their own ideas on what to do with the plastics. Over the semester, they broke into pairs then into groups of four.

“As we are beginning our last month of class, the students are down to two separate projects,” Walls said. 

The two final projects are jewelry and flowerpots.

“We didn’t tell them what to make,” said Andrew Heisey, the chairperson for the Fine Arts Department and a second professor working on the project. “It was all something they had to develop.”

Heisey’s role in the class is to work with the students on how to make their products. He spent a lot of time researching plastic waste leading up to the class so that he could be knowledgeable when teaching the students.

“Right now, we process all the plastic by cutting it with scissors and cleaning it ourselves,” Heisey said. 

Students are using panini presses to melt the plastic. 

According to Walls, there are seven other professors involved in the class Melanie Catana, professor of vocal music, taught the students about team building and ideation.

 Dr Abolade Olagoke, a Sociology professor, “worked with the class on social missions, social causes, and how the social element works,” Walls said.

Biology professor Dr Janet Paladino is also involved. She initially proposed the idea of finding a solution for wasted plastic and talked with the students about the problems of wasted plastic. At the beginning of the class, students got to use virtual reality to see the effect that plastic waste has on the world, Walls said. 

Dr Evonne Baldauff, chairperson for the Chemistry and Forensic Science Department, “has been incredibly valuable as far as what happens when melting plastic,” Walls said. “She has taught our students how to document what they’re doing, very much like a scientific experiment because when we get a process that works, we definitely need to be able to replicate it.”

The final professor involved is Melinda Skrbin, professor of Communication. She works on “handling the promotions and the marketing piece of this course,” Skrbin said. 

“A lot of times, startup companies fail, not because their product isn’t any good or the service that they offer isn’t good, but it’s because they fail to get that messaging out,” Skrbin said. 

Skrbin teaches the students how to tell the story of the products that they create and how to do so effectively.

 “This has really been the best example since I’ve been teaching entrepreneurship of really taking an idea from concept to implementation in a semester,” Walls said. “We truly want [the Entrepreneurial Leadership minor] to be a cross-campus minor where you might be sitting next to someone who’s a nursing student or someone that’s in biblical ministry. Because that’s really what society is.”

“I hope that every student in this course is really challenged in a way that they haven’t been before, to come up with a creative idea and see it through,” Skrbin said.

Heisey and Walls share similar hopes, as well as the hope that students “think differently about the things around [them]” and to “try to find solutions to problems,” Heisey said.

Walls and Heisey want to aim for being able to turn the project into a larger business at Waynesburg University, where they might be able to “take some of our campus plastic waste and make something from it,” Walls said.

According to Walls, the “Plastics for Purpose” class will be held in the Spring of 2022 for students.

The Yellow Jacket Print Newspaper is back for a Special Fall 2021 Edition.

Pick up your copy around campus Friday, December 3! Copies will also be available at select locations around the community. Happy holidays and happy reading!