Plastics students research, prototype sustainable industry solutions using recycled materials

Eleven seniors present findings at Wisconsin’s EVCO Plastics, which funded the lab-based projects
Plastics engineering students work in a UW-Stout lab.
​Jerry Poling | May 19, 2023

How can the plastics manufacturing industry be more sustainable? Seniors in UW-Stout’s plastics engineering program tackled that big question this spring.

As they researched possible answers, they realized multiple ways the industry can move forward using recycled materials and that their generation of engineers can be part of the solution.

The 11 students, eight of whom graduated May 6, presented five projects recently at the headquarters of Wisconsin-based EVCO Plastics of DeForest. EVCO provided $100,000 last fall for the research to support the new engineers advancing sustainability in the industry.

Plastics engineering students and faculty gather with EVCO officials, including founder, chairman and CEO Dale Evans, second from right, at EVCO headquarters in DeForest.
Plastics engineering students and faculty gather with EVCO officials, including chairman and CEO Dale Evans, second from right, at EVCO headquarters in DeForest. / UW-Stout

“The research will help us incorporate more sustainability into our curriculum to educate the next-generation workforce. Together, we hope to make a difference in today’s world,Professor Wei Zheng said.

The research included:

  • Designing a modular highway sound barrier from recycled plastic
  • Studying the scientific properties and processing of a recycled material, compared to its virgin counterpart
  • Examining the possibilities of adding recycled materials to multilayer plastic sheeting, or films, which are used in shopping bags and packaging.

Students on the sound barrier project successfully designed and manufactured a small-scale version of their product, for which they also did market research.

“Today there are  51 million tons of plastic consumed in a year and only 5% of this is being repurposed. Millions of tons of plastic are not being reused, and we wanted to find a way to put this to use,” said senior Bradley Sarauer, of Bloomer.

EVCO CEO Dale Evans, a UW-Stout alum, speaks during students’ research presentations.
EVCO CEO Dale Evans, a UW-Stout alum, speaks during students’ research presentations. / UW-Stout

Olivia Hile, of Rice Lake, said her team examined how processing affects a recycled material compared to its virgin counterpart, such as its dimensional stability, mechanical strength and even appearance. “Many manufacturers are reluctant to use post-consumer recycled materials because it is more difficult to reliably process them, so providing more information to these manufacturers will help them better design and produce plastics parts from these recycled materials,” Hile said.

Zheng is “really proud of our students’ perseverance in embracing new challenges every day and solving them throughout the process. The students not only learned the latest research and development in plastics recycling but also solidified their knowledge in plastics ranging from polymer synthesis, material characterization and theoretical modeling/simulations to various processing including injection molding, extrusion, thermoforming and 3D printing.”

Anna Bartz, a director at EVCO, said the partnership with UW-Stout is an example of how innovation is driven by collaboration with academia. "Advancements in plastics processing happen when industry and higher education collaborate. We were incredibly impressed with every capstone project that was presented by UW-Stout plastics engineering students and were grateful to support these projects throughout the school year," she said.

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Promoting sustainability is one of the goals of UW-Stout’s plastics engineering program. EVCO, founded in 1964 and now owned and operated by UW-Stout alum Dale Evans, CEO, recently formed a Sustainability Council.

Zheng said the research improved students’ problem-solving and critical thinking skills. Hile’s team, for example, learned the importance of studying their problem more deeply before conducting tests and the challenges of sourcing recycled material. Sarauer’s team overcame issues with ordering a mold and receiving it on time and working with government transportation regulations.

Students improved their communication skills, oral and written, while presenting to industry professionals. “By the end of capstone I was able to present confidently without being nervous,” Sarauer said.

Graduates Sarauer and Reis Stingle, of Shiocton, have been hired full time by EVCO.

EVCO Plastics, based in DeForest, has 12 facilities around the world.
EVCO Plastics, based in DeForest, has 12 facilities around the world. / EVCO Plastics

Students who graduate from UW-Stout's program are prepared to jump into critical roles in plastics manufacturing upon completion of their degree,” Bartz said. “We are thrilled to have two of these students join our EVCO Plastics team as process engineers this summer."

Hile was hired by ITW Deltar Fasteners of Chippewa Falls. The company makes automotive fasteners with injection molding.

Graduates from the program report an average starting salary of $66,000 with 100% employment.

UW-Stout has four undergraduate engineering programs and a graduate program in the Robert F. Cervenka School of Engineering.

About EVCO Plastics

EVCO Plastics is a leading plastics manufacturing company with 12 manufacturing facilities strategically located throughout the world. With an emphasis on design for manufacturability, strategic engineering and innovative technology, EVCO is recognized as a global leader in custom plastic injection molding.

EVCO was founded in 1964, employs more than 2,000 people and operates 270 injection molding machines, ranging from 28 to 4,400 tons. For more information about EVCO, visit  LinkedIn, or YouTube

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