Engineering a Better Can

Trashcans designed by students from Penn State Behrend's plastics engineering technology program

Trashcans designed by students from Penn State Behrend's plastics engineering technology program

Credit: Penn State Behrend

Litter is unsightly, to be sure, but officials in the city of Wausau, Wisconsin, thought the waste containers on every corner downtown were unsightly, too. The city’s procurement director approached Wausau Tile, a company that manufactures site furnishings, and suggested they come up with a more aesthetically pleasing trashcan design.

Having met students and faculty members from Penn State Behrend’s plastics engineering technology program at trade shows and other industry events and knowing Behrend had resources they could tap into, Wausau Tile reached out the School of Engineering.

Meanwhile, Jon Meckley, associate professor of engineering and chair of the PLET program, had been tweaking the curriculum in some of his classes, including PLET 323 Packaging Processes, to encourage more critical thinking and hands-on work.

“As much as I love to think students memorize everything I say, I know they only retain a portion of what I teach them in lectures,” he said. “I’ve started moving toward more selfdirected learning and organizing projects in such a way that students also have to do research and defend their choices. Those discussions help them learn and retain information.”

Meckley’s colleague, Jason Williams, assistant teaching professor of engineering, suggested Meckley task his PLET 323 students with the Wausau trashcan design project. Working in small teams, students came up with options to present to Justin Plunkett, site furnishing division manager at Wausau Tile, who would pick the winning design.

“We gave them ideas and guidelines for what we thought we wanted,” Plunkett said. “But we knew those things might change a bit in the actual design process.”

Near the end of the spring semester, Meckley sent all the designs to Plunkett. “I sent them all because you can never really predict exactly what a client is looking for,” he said.

Each design was accompanied by a report.

“The students really went above and beyond by providing not just designs, but suggestions on what plastics materials to use and statistics and test results to support them,” Plunkett said.

The winning team — Nathan Albensi, George Haws, Dan Judge, and Jess Siegel, who are all now PLET graduates — focused on simplicity.

“We designed our trashcan to be simple, yet functional,” Siegel said. “We wanted it to do what was required effectively without over-the-top additional features.”

“As Da Vinci, said ‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,’” Albensi said. “Our locking mechanism, designed by Dan Judge, was unique in that it only required the force of gravity to lock and unlock.”

Wausau Tile liked the design so much they put it into production. “We just delivered our first order of eighty-seven containers for a project in Miami, Florida, a month ago,” Plunkett said. “We’ve also given a few to the city of Wausau. They plan to replace all of the less-attractive ones downtown eventually.”

The team members were surprised to see their class project put into production.

“It’s extremely rewarding to see work you do in the classroom show up in the real world,” Haws said. “You can point to a tangible product and show your friends and family what you do. It’s pretty cool.”