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From Soda Fountain to Airport Runways — UWSP Student-Led Research Project gets FRESH

By Portage County Business Council

Visit a dining hall on the campus of the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point (UWSP) and your meal and beverage will be served in an environmentally friendly clear PLA bioplastic container derived from plant materials. You can thank the UWSP students who led the charge to replace styrofoam — which is a petroleum-based product — with PLA containers in fall 2009. But take note — the students aren’t stopping there.

According to Paul Fowler, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technology (WIST) at UWSP the students have initiated a research project that takes sustainability one step further. “Because of the students, we’ve taken the first step and replaced a petroleum-based product with an environmentally-friendly plant-based one. But the students are looking at the next step: what do you do with that eco-friendly container? They understand that those containers typically end up in a landfill and that’s not the best environmental fate.”

What are the alternatives? According to Fowler, the PLA containers could be composted, but industrial composting isn’t well developed. “So WIST is helping students research alternatives. We’ve started by setting up collection points in dining halls and cafes. We’re working with these containers to process them — to basically convert them back to their starting materials and see how we can convert those materials into something useful.”

That “something useful” turns out to be — for the moment — de-icer and anti-icer materials for the aviation industry. Airports can’t use rock salt because it is corrosive to airplanes and the de-icers and anti-icers currently used are petroleum-based. “Our research shows that we can convert the PLA containers into effective de-icers and anti-icers, but now the challenge is collecting enough of these PLA materials to make the process cost-effective,” adds Fowler.

“It’s about chain of custody,” Fowler states. “Our students realize that it’s not enough to use environmentally-friendly materials. We need to look at the next steps and the environmental impacts of those steps. It’s easy to talk about sustainability, but our students are working to put it into action. ” He continues, “Sustainability is about protecting the environment. But it’s also about social and economic changes as well. We need to balance all three. We need to change how people use materials and make it economically beneficial as well. We’re doing this on a shoestring budget and the students are very enthusiastic, but the challenge remains — broadening our collection of these PLA materials, cleaning these materials and processing them. We’re looking to see what other organizations are using these resources so we can pool our collection resources. We need more of these containers. It’s the economies of scale — the more we get, the more we can play with it and validate the process.”

The goal of the FRESH campaign is to implement and study a collection and chemical recycling process for PLA plastics used at campus dining facilities. FRESH will be collecting data throughout the 2011-2012 academic year on information about recovery rates, contamination rates and costs.