What will happen to the COVID-19 plexiglass barriers? Iowa State students have ideas

Plexiglass barriers

Ayodeji Oluwalana, recycling and special events coordinator for Facilities Planning and Management, with the plexiglass barriers that will soon be coming down inside the General Services Building. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

AMES, Iowa — Katie Baumgarn began worrying as something occurred to her last summer: What will happen to all of the plexiglass barriers once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted?

“It was an awake nightmare, that people will start chucking them into the landfill,” said Baumgarn, classroom scheduling specialist for Iowa State University Facilities Planning and Management (FP&M).

She connected with her colleagues in FP&M to see what they could do to stop the potential waste of approximately 500 plexiglass barriers on campus, which are made of acrylic material that cannot be recycled. This falls in line with Iowa State’s Sustainability Plan, which is pursuing a goal of 85% of campus waste diverted from landfills by 2025.

Merry Rankin, director of the Office of Sustainability, recalled how impressed she was with a 2019 industrial design studio in which students collaborated with the ISU Police Department to redesign police gear. She reached out to Dan Neubauer, associate teaching professor of industrial design, to collaborate on this new project.

Last fall, Neubauer’s students took inventory of the plexiglass on campus. This spring, Neubauer’s students started brainstorming how the barriers could be reused and upcycled – not only those on the ISU campus, but everywhere. 

“We’re moving away from the status quo of not only impacting our own immediate community, but how folks can use our model to impact the country and world,” said Ayodeji Oluwalana, recycling and special events coordinator for FP&M.

And as Iowa State prepares for the upcoming academic year, including in-person classes, the team says a plan for these barriers is needed now.

Neubauer presented his students with the general idea, which was vague besides knowing they would have to find a need for the plexiglass. 

“There were a lot of discussions of provenance and the charged nature of the material,” he said. “Students had to decide if they wanted to acknowledge the fact that this material was once a barrier that divided us and kept us safe versus a material to be upcycled and reclaimed.

“The major theme of this class, which was developed off of my collaboration with ISUPD, is social connection and impact. We’ve had a lot of discussions of how our designs are not only material projects, but how they can impact our society.”

Ideas so far include turning the barriers into rechargeable laptop desks, organizational desk tools, large-scale interactive art installations – even class rings for those who didn’t get to have an in-person commencement ceremony last year. Some barriers, of course, will remain standing or will be reused as is once they are no longer needed due to COVID-19 as departments such as University Museums and Parks Library have found them useful for functionality and directional assistance. 

Departments are beginning to take down some barriers this summer, and the team will work to identify how they should be reused.

“This project provided a moment of reflection and reconnection that we haven’t had during COVID,” Rankin said. “We’ve been given a glimpse through the students’ products and descriptions into how powerful this moment has been for them. They need healing processes through projects like this.”