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Southern Miss Professor Takes Plastic Recycling to the Classroom in a Unique Way: The Flying Disc Approach to Recycling

Thu, 04/27/2023 - 09:02am | By: Van Arnold


Tristan Clemons, Assistant Professor, School of Polymer Science and Engineering; Ty Posey, Senior Scientist at the Mississippi Polymer Institute, and Justin Williford, undergraduate senior in the School of Polymer Science and Engineering.

Even though most Americans have a supportive attitude toward recycling, current estimates suggest that less than eight percent of the nearly 40 million tons of municipal plastic waste generated in the United States annually is actually recycled. The vast majority ends up in landfills or, worse yet, discarded into the natural environment. 

The School of Polymer Science and Engineering at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) has a number of research projects aimed at combating this trend and the Clemons Lab has taken a newer approach to help support plastic recycling education in the Hattiesburg area. 

USMDr. Tristan Clemons, Assistant Professor in the School of Polymer Science and Engineering, believes educating younger generations about the importance of recycling is the key to change for the future. To kickstart these changes in recycling habits, The Clemons Lab embarked on “The Flying Disc Approach to Recycling” with Sumrall High School, a community outreach program supported by the Mississippi Space Grant Consortium. 

Across this program, students were taught the principles of plastic recycling through collecting, sorting, and washing their own plastic waste, of which the team were then able to utilize to create flying discs to give back to the students.

USM“The project was a lot of fun to get started and I am just so grateful for all of the support we had along the way to get it off the ground,” said Clemons. “Obviously, the funding from the Mississippi Space Grant Consortium was integral to launch this project and we are incredible thankful for their financial support, but also Ms. Jamie Sorrell (Sumrall High teacher) has been a fantastic ambassador of the program and her students were engaged at all steps of the process which was great to see.”

The collected plastic was shredded and molded with equipment available at the Mississippi Polymer Institute (MPI) in Hattiesburg, the industrial polymer science outreach arm of USM serving customers all across the country. 

“Ty Posey, Senior Scientist at the MPI was also key to the project’s success sharing his knowledge with the team about processing the post-consumer plastic waste and providing the access to the industrial scale injection molding instrumentation suitable for the disc production. What I really enjoyed was this was a collaboration amongst USM Polymer Science, MPI, and Sumrall High all done locally right here within about a five-mile radius of everything we needed” Clemons said. 

 Penelope Jankoski, a Clemons Lab graduate student, noted: “Having the opportunity to show these students a real example of turning what could have ended up in a landfill into something they can use is a powerful thing. From our initial discussions the students, it was clear that many of them didn’t see the practical reasons for recycling. I think that having students actively collect items themselves and see the process of creating a flying disc first-hand played a major role in igniting a shift in their initial attitude towards recycling.” 

While the focus of the outreach program was to educate students on the power of recycling, Dr. Clemons adds that, “We have one of the strongest polymer science programs in the U.S. right here in our backyard. This is a great way to recruit local students who otherwise might not know about the doors a degree in polymer science and engineering could open for them.” 

On reflection, Sorrell stated that “It was an amazing opportunity for Sumrall High School to work with and learn from Dr. Clemons and two graduate students from USM Polymer Science and Engineering. The experience made a lasting impression on my students on knowing the possibilities of recycled plastic, and innovative applications in polymer science and engineering.”  

After a successful pilot of the program, the Clemons Lab Team will look to continue this program with Sumrall High School students in the future and are aiming to expand to other schools in the Hattiesburg area. To learn more about USM’s Polymer Science and Engineering program, visit their website.