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As pandemic wanes, Iowa State students devising creative ways to reuse plexiglass barriers


From offices to supermarkets, casinos and more, plexiglass barriers became ubiquitous after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease.In fact, they’re so common now, that you may not even pay them much thought. But Katie Baumgarn did.The Iowa State University classroom scheduling specialist wondered what will happen to them after the pandemic is over.”My worry was, ‘oh, wow, when we come out of this pandemic, people are just going to go chuck it into a landfill,'” Baumgarn said. So she took her idea up with colleagues and, eventually, a team formed.That team includes Dan Neubauer, an associate teaching professor of industrial design at ISU.”This stuff doesn’t break down, it doesn’t degrade,” Neubauer said. “It just sits in a landfill.”Neubauer said after students and staff determined there were about 500 of the barriers on campus, he put his class to work. Students helped devise ways to recycle or upcycle the material.Neubauer said recycling plexiglass isn’t easy.”That didn’t stop me from pushing my students to try to figure out ways to make it work and make it look awesome,” Neubauer said. Neubauer says the acrylic’s cuttable and heat makes it bendable, making it ripe for reuse. Student ideas included brochure holders, desktop organizers, adjustable desks and even jewelry.Both Baumgarn and Neubauer said they know that ISU isn’t the only place where the barriers are used, so they hope other organizations or businesses might be able to learn something from this project.”It would be great if others could see the story and say ‘Wow, what are we going to do with our plexiglass, you know, how can we help keep it out of the landfill?'” she said.Despite the fact that businesses and organizations have spent millions to put them up, it’s still unclear whether the barriers actually prevent COVID-19. A CDC study of Georgia elementary schools found that masks and proper ventilation helped prevent the spread of the virus, rather than barriers.In fact, a Japanese paper, awaiting peer review, suggests that plastic barriers actually made conditions worse in poorly ventilated areas.

From offices to supermarkets, casinos and more, plexiglass barriers became ubiquitous after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease.

In fact, they’re so common now, that you may not even pay them much thought. But Katie Baumgarn did.

The Iowa State University classroom scheduling specialist wondered what will happen to them after the pandemic is over.

“My worry was, ‘oh, wow, when we come out of this pandemic, people are just going to go chuck it into a landfill,'” Baumgarn said.

So she took her idea up with colleagues and, eventually, a team formed.

That team includes Dan Neubauer, an associate teaching professor of industrial design at ISU.

“This stuff doesn’t break down, it doesn’t degrade,” Neubauer said. “It just sits in a landfill.”

Neubauer said after students and staff determined there were about 500 of the barriers on campus, he put his class to work. Students helped devise ways to recycle or upcycle the material.

Neubauer said recycling plexiglass isn’t easy.

“That didn’t stop me from pushing my students to try to figure out ways to make it work and make it look awesome,” Neubauer said.

Neubauer says the acrylic’s cuttable and heat makes it bendable, making it ripe for reuse. Student ideas included brochure holders, desktop organizers, adjustable desks and even jewelry.

Both Baumgarn and Neubauer said they know that ISU isn’t the only place where the barriers are used, so they hope other organizations or businesses might be able to learn something from this project.

“It would be great if others could see the story and say ‘Wow, what are we going to do with our plexiglass, you know, how can we help keep it out of the landfill?'” she said.

Despite the fact that businesses and organizations have spent millions to put them up, it’s still unclear whether the barriers actually prevent COVID-19. A CDC study of Georgia elementary schools found that masks and proper ventilation helped prevent the spread of the virus, rather than barriers.

In fact, a Japanese paper, awaiting peer review, suggests that plastic barriers actually made conditions worse in poorly ventilated areas.

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