Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Summer Placement: Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, University of Sheffield

Aisha Khan, SELA Cohort 2015 

Did you know that less than 1 per cent of paper coffee cups in the UK are recycled? That paper coffee cups aren’t meant to be put into general recycling bins? That they are considered waste paper stream contaminants?

I had the opportunity of carrying out a placement through the SELA research bursary programme in the department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, University of Sheffield, working with Professor Peter Styring on the recycling of paper coffee cups.

I obtained my placement by talking to various researchers involved with carbon capture research (as I knew they had similar interests and passions to my own) and sending through a project proposal application to the SELA board. However, my original supervisor left and so my original project plan fell through. I then agreed with Professor Styring that I would work with him in starting a brand new research project opportunity that had been offered to our department instead.

The University of Sheffield is currently working with one of the UK’s most popular coffee chains to try and find a large scale solution for recycling disposable paper coffee cups.

Disposable coffee cups are made of a paper cup, with a thin, polyethylene (PE) lining. The issue we have with their recycling, is that current coffee cup manufacturing means that the thin PE layer is usually heat sealed to the paper cup. This causes issues with separating that layer off when it comes to the cup disposal. The paper itself is of an extremely high quality so it is highly desirable to be able to recycle these cups. My task was to try and find a way to separate the PE layer off and then obtain (pure) paper pulp that could create decent quality paper.

I learnt to use a variety of new lab techniques and equipment, including a centrifuge and a high quality microscope that was able to take photos of highly detailed images. Writing a literature review and research report developed my research and written skills. I now appreciate how much background work goes into the research before it has even begun. A research review takes so much time and careful consideration before you can start fully planning the direction your research will go in. This placement taught me to use my initiative and how to solve problems with limited resources. A potential method for paper cup recycling was found to develop and report back to our industry partners for the project.

Starting a brand new research project, rather than researching something in an already started project was extremely daunting. My initial fear was being out of my depth when offered the project, but I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity as it sounded extremely exciting. I knew I was good at managing my own learning and could apply my previously learned degree skills in order to learn on the job, as one would have to when starting in a new company. What I have learned from this experience is things do not always go to plan, but if you stay on top of things and keep in good contact with people, all will work out well. I have learned that sometimes taking a risk and going for an opportunity is one of the best ways to learn, and is so much more rewarding than choosing the seemingly more accessible option. If you are determined to do well and put in the hard work to learn everything you need, there will be a degree of success. I never thought I would read a handbook on paper making, and I now feel guilty every time I buy a takeout coffee, but this was an invaluable experience that I will never forget.

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