In this video segment adapted from Pennsylvania College of Technology and WVIA, learn about career opportunities in the plastics industry. Visit NPE: The International Plastics Showcase, the biggest plastics gathering in the world, and meet some people from the industry. Hear how different academic degrees can lead to different types of positions within the plastics industry. In addition, learn how emerging technologies such as recycling and bioplastics are a part of the sustainability and environmental movement.
This media asset was adapted from "degrees that work: Plastics".
Plastics are one of the most widely used materials in the world. From shopping bags to medical equipment, plastics have become an integral part of modern living, and the field of plastics continues to grow. In the United States, the plastics industry employs nearly one million workers, including technicians, engineers, and scientists.
There are several paths students can take to become part of this large industry. Some schools offer certificates or associate's degrees, which train students for technician-level jobs. These programs teach students about polymer materials and plastics manufacturing equipment, and give them experience handling the tools of the industry. Before attending these programs, students should have a high school background in some if not all of the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
A bachelor's degree prepares students for a wide range of career options, from technical to supervisory positions. Such a degree provides more in-depth knowledge about plastics and polymer technology as well as an understanding of all aspects of product development. High school students interested in pursuing a bachelor's degree should ideally develop a strong background in the STEM fields as well as computer science.
A postgraduate degree (a master's or doctorate) in plastics and polymer engineering provides even more extensive training for students who wish to be engineers and scientists. Students interested in attending graduate school should have a bachelor's degree in the physical sciences, such as chemistry, chemical engineering, or mechanical engineering.
New polymer technologies continue to be developed, keeping the plastics industry on the cutting edge of science and in continual need of new talent. One exciting area of growth is "green" and environmentally friendly plastics. Because traditional plastics degrade slowly or not at all, there is increasing concern about their disposal and their impact on landfills. Furthermore, plastics are conventionally made from petrochemicals derived from oil, coal, and natural gas, which are nonrenewable resources.
In addition to increasing plastics recycling programs, the industry is working on innovative alternatives to traditional plastic production. For example, renewable resources, such as corn, cane sugar, or soy, can be used as raw materials for plastics; plants can even be genetically modified to produce organic polymers. These "bioplastics," as they are called, are made from sustainable resources and have the potential to be biodegradable and compostable. However, bioplastics are currently more expensive to produce than regular plastics, and there are still technical hurdles to overcome. For example, water molecules can eventually evaporate out of the material used in corn-based water bottles, making this kind of bottle less durable. Further, the material is not very heat resistant. Nonetheless, there is a hopeful future for affordable and sustainable green plastics, and today's students can help make it a reality.
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