October 16, 2019
During my junior year of college at Wentworth Institute of Technology, I took a course in environmental engineering. Before this class, I would have liked to consider myself as someone conscious of my environmental decisions – I tried to reuse plastic bottles, never littered, and had a general understanding of current conditions. However, this course made me realize that there were so many other factors affecting our environment, with many of these dangers becoming increasingly imminent over the past decade. I remember being amazed by wastewater treatment processes, contamination flow rates, and life cycles assessments. In particular, this course peaked my interest in sustainability and material science. I remember learning about the new Chinese import ban and discussing the dire need for new solutions to manage waste. I realized I was interested in research, and despite not going to a school that focused on publishing, I spoke to my professors regarding different opportunities. After class one day, my environmental engineering professor voiced an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. He was going to begin a project on plastics and ways to incorporate it into common construction materials. Instantly, I was hooked on the idea. I would be able to further my interests in materials science, sustainability, and plastic, all while researching innovative solutions to manage waste. He offered me the position working as a full time co-op for the spring semester.
Through this opportunity, I began to think of waste as a resource instead of a nuisance. I started conducting an extensive literature review and was introduced to more information than ever before regarding statistics. I was forced to accept the truth regarding current waste pollution in both terrestrial and marine environments. Landfills are starting to fill up with little promise of waste quantities slowing down. The ocean is also affected by waste, with plastics and microplastics serving as threats to marine life. Recent concerns over plastic straws and soda ring packaging have jumpstarted the conversation surrounding single use plastics. But, this does little to undo the damage that has already presented itself to these natural environments. One article even suggested that a layer of plastic is left across the ocean floor as a geologic indicator. As I continued my co-op, I began to search for different conference opportunities to learn about the most up-to-date research in the industry. Much to my amazement, I discovered SWANApalooza and found that its upcoming conference would be held only a few minutes down the street. I began to review the upcoming agenda and was fascinated by the different poster presentations on the second day, that focused on PFAs. My favorite part of the conference were the keynote speakers, where I got to listen to three prominent women speak about the dangers of plastics. A presentation session later in the day also created interesting conversations surrounding waste management and the lack of a universal understanding of proper recycling.
It is thanks to my course work and co-op experiences at Wentworth that I now have a better understanding of waste and waste management. A large untapped market exists because of the lack of a circular economy surrounding plastic. It is possible that if this material is better explored as a resource and incorporated into construction materials, plastic pollution and unmanageable waste quantities will be mitigated. I hope to pursue a Master’s Degree in materials science with a focus on sustainability and use this education to design innovative solutions to manage growing issues. As an individual, I am better equipped to address environmental issues through opportunities such as sustainability co-ops, the SWANApalooza Conference, environmental engineering courses and literature review.
Amanda is studying Civil Engineering at Wentworth Institute of Technology. Through her classes, she has been exposed to a variety of environmental and materials science courses. Amanda has been able to learn more about the solid waste industry by understanding circular economy, renewable energies, and product waste streams, by participating in cooperative studies and by attending a SWANA conference.