Recycling Realities (Spring Online Course)

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In this free adult course with Kevin Cannon, Ph.D., will survey current recycling technologies & policies and the short & long term costs.

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Recycling Realities with Professor Kevin Cannon

6 Thursdays, May 27 – July 1, 2021, 6:30 to 7:45pm.

This course will be held online using Zoom. Registration is required for each student (even if you share the screen). You will receive confirmation of your registration by email with information about how to access the Zoom meetings.

In 1960, 94 % of the municipal solid waste generated in the United States was disposed of in landfills or open burn pits. In 2013, the majority of waste was still landfilled (53%), but 34 % was recycled and 13 % was burned with energy recovery. Changing technologies, waste compositions, regulations, and increasing environmental awareness drives how we and the rest of the world treat solid municipal waste. Despite what looks like a promising trend, total municipal waste generation in the United States tripled. Thus, as increasing amounts of wastes are placed in landfills, such disposal comes with significant short-term costs (financial and environmental) as well as potential long-term costs (resource depletion).

This course will survey current recycling technologies and policies, with emphasis on the recovery of value from municipal solid wastes. In addition to addressing the recycling of glass, paper products, food wastes, and traditional common metals (iron, aluminum, copper, etc.), special attention will be paid to plastics and technology metals recycling.

Course Schedule

1. Thursday, May 27, 2021 – General overview of recycling and introduction to plastic wastes The course will start with a general overview of waste handling strategies in the United States and abroad, with particular attention to the current handling of plastic waste. Current U.S. plastic waste strategies will be compared to current strategies in Europe and China.

2. Thursday, June 3, 2021 – Technical, economic, and ecological aspects of plastic waste handling Technical aspects of plastic recycling for various applications and specific types of plastics will be reviewed. Economic and ecological values of current waste handling strategies will be compared to show the advantages of plastic recycling.

3. Thursday, June 10, 2021 – Recycling and sustainable utilization of technology metals Within a few decades, the number of metals used has increased from approximately 10 to 40. Most of these “new” metals are necessary for optimal performance of high-technology products that have become an essential part of our society. Yet, many of these metals are “one and done,” discarded after use, with recycling rates <1 %. We will review the current issues associated with metal sustainability related to these new specialty metals, especially in the context of e-waste.

4. Thursday, June 17, 2021 – Glass and aluminum recycling: how well are we really doing with our current technologies? Glass and aluminum are often perceived by the public as easily recycled materials. How well are we really doing with glass and aluminum, since the fate of these materials is either recycling or the landfill. Are these recycling streams sustainable? The status of glass and aluminum recycling, along with the technology and environmental impacts associated with recycling, will be reviewed.

5. Thursday, June 24, 2021 – Diverting food wastes from landfills In 2013, food wastes accounted for approximately 15 % of the 250 million tons of waste generated in the United States; by weight, it was second only to paper-related waste. Efforts to reduce the amount of food waste in municipal solid waste will be discussed.

6. Thursday, July 1, 2021 – Glass and paper products recycling: how well are we doing with our current technologies? Glass and paper products account for nearly a third of the waste generated in the United States. Incineration with energy recovery is an alternative option to recycling for paper, but not for glass. Are your efforts in creating a recycling stream at home for these products paying off? The status of glass and paper recycling, along with the technology and environmental impacts associated with recycling, will be reviewed.

Suggested Readings

“Understanding Plastics Recycling: Economic, Ecological, and Technical Aspects of Plastic Waste Handling” Natalie Rudolph, Raphael Kiesel, & Chuanchom Aumnate, 2017, Hanser Publications, Cincinnati. ISBN: 978-1-56990-676-7, E-Book ISBN: 978-1-56990-677-4

“Metal Sustainability: Global Challenges, Consequences, and Prospects” Edited by Reed M. Izatt, 2016, John Wiley & Sons, ISBN-13:978-1119009108, ISBN-10: 9781119009108

About the Professor

Dr. Kevin Cannon is Professor of Chemistry at Penn State Abington College and a Research Associate at Temple University. He has done chemical work in bomb-detection, car paint, oil spill remediation and natural product synthesis. He has an ongoing interest in the history of science, particularly 18th and 19th Century science, which includes the development of the periodic table. He has been teaching for the Wagner since 2015.

If you have any questions about this online course, please email or

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Organizer Wagner Free Institute of Science

Organizer of Recycling Realities (Spring Online Course)

Founded in 1855 in Philadelphia, the Wagner Free Institute of Science is dedicated to providing free public education in science. Its programs include free courses and lectures, field trips and lessons for children and museum tours for all ages.The evening science courses are the oldest program devoted to free adult education in the United States.
Overhead view of the Wagner's exhibit hall. Photograph by Rob Cardillo
The Institute’s Museum houses more than 100,000 natural history specimens, a collection begun by founder William Wagner in the early 19th century and expanded by the renowned scientist Joseph Leidy in the 1880s.Completed in 1865, the Wagner’s National Historic Landmark building is essentially unchanged since the late 19th century and includes a Victorian exhibition hall filled with fossils, shells, minerals and mounted animal skeletons and skins displayed in original wood and glass cabinets. The Museum is typically open to visitors Tuesdays - Fridays, 9 AM to 4 PM but is currently closed because of COVID-19. In the meantime, we hope you'll join us online!

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