FRNP Challenges Students to ‘Hack’ Plastics Waste Problem

Students from three regional high schools recently teamed up for Hack the Plastics, an event created by EM’s Paducah Site cleanup contractor to “hack,” or propose solutions, to help solve a part of the global plastics waste problem.

"My students were engaged in a cooperative learning environment with other area high school students as they worked to develop solutions to a real world dilemma,” Massac County High School teacher Meaghan Musselman said. “They gained a better understanding of careers utilizing critical and creative thinking skills as well as an appreciation of the application of such work to many real world contributions.”

The event is part of the program ECOThink, developed by Four Rivers Nuclear Partnership (FRNP) in 2019. The contractor created the program to help local high school students learn practical applications for environmental stewardship in their everyday life.

Each year, ECOThink focuses on developing students’ critical and creative thinking skills, while giving them an opportunity to contribute their ideas to solving real world problems. Past projects have been centered on topics such as sustainable storm water management.

Twenty students from Massac County, Ballard Memorial and McCracken County high schools took part in the Hack the Plastics event hosted at the Paxton Engineering Research Center.

Featured at this year’s event was Jeffrey Seay, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Kentucky Paducah. Seay serves as president and founder of Empowered Solutions for Environmental Sustainability, a Paducah-based nonprofit organization that designs and builds technology to address mismanaged plastic waste around the world.

The students participating in Hack the Plastics received practical advice on how to work as teams to develop creative solutions to support Seay’s organization in managing the challenges that many developing countries face with recycling plastics into biofuels that can be used for energy.

“Our team selects problems our students can relate to. This year, students learned how one of our region’s nonprofit organizations is recycling plastic bags into usable fuels for families in Africa,” FRNP Community Relations Specialist Steve Christmas said. “While the problem solving exercise is centered on an African community, students also learned how their everyday actions in the United States impacts the world at large.”

This year, FRNP partnered with the University of Kentucky College of Engineering Paducah campus, Empowered Solutions for Environmental Sustainability, and Sprocket, Inc. to bring the Hack the Plastics event to students in the region. Sprocket is a nonprofit digital economic development organization in Paducah.