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University Students Search For Creative Ways To Repurpose Plexiglass Barriers As Pandemic Wanes

LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) - As the number of coronavirus cases continue to decline, the days may be numbered for those plexiglass barriers you see just about everywhere. But some students at Iowa State University are coming up with creative ways to keep them out of landfills.

Clear plastic barriers went up in offices, supermarkets, schools and restaurants shortly after the pandemic began in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease. Some of those barriers may stay in place indefinitely, but what about the ones that will be discarded?

"I was sitting at home one night, just kind of thinking through things. And it hit me. Oh my, what's going to happen to all the plexiglass that has been put up around campus," says Katie Baumgarn, an Iowa State classroom scheduling specialist.

"My worry was, oh, wow, when we come out of this pandemic, people are just going to go chuck it into a landfill," she tells CBS affiliate KCCI.

So Baumgarn took it up with colleagues, and eventually formed a team that included Dan Neubauer, an associate teaching professor of industrial design at ISU.

"This stuff doesn't break down, it doesn't degrade. It just sits in the landfill," he says.

Neubauer decided to put his students to the task of finding the barriers on campus. Turns out there are about 500. He says recycling or upcycling 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 explains.

He says the acrylic is cuttable and heat makes it bendable, making it ripe for reuse. Student ideas included brochure holders, desktop organizers and adjustable desks.

One student even designed jewelry.

"She embedded metal within the plastic layers," Neubauer reveals.

Despite the fact that businesses and organizations have spent millions of dollars to put them up, it's still unclear whether the plexiglass barriers actually prevent the spread of 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 addition, a Japanese paper awaiting peer review suggests that plastic barriers actually made conditions worse in poorly ventilated areas.


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