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Plastics: Floating Ethical Flotsam

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

June 19, 2019

Conference Session

Engineering Ethics Division Technical Session - Classroom Practices

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

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Paper Authors


Marilyn A. Dyrud Oregon Institute of Technology

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Marilyn Dyrud retired in 2017 as a full professor in the Communication Department at Oregon Institute of Technology, where she taught for four decades. She has been a member of ASEE since 1983 and is active in the Engineering Ethics Division, as past chair, and the Engineering Technology Division, as the current program chair. She is an ASEE fellow (2008), winner of the James McGraw Award (2010), winner of the Berger Award (2013), and serves as the communications editor of the Journal of Engineering Technology. In addition to ASEE, she is active in the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics and the Association for Business Communication.

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“I just want to say one word to you. Just one word,” confides family friend Mr. McGuire to newly minted graduate Benjamin Braddock. “Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics.”

“Think about it,” he intones to a bewildered Ben. “Will you think about it?”

Plastics have come a long way since the times of Dustin Hoffman and The Graduate. Since its initial days, as a replacement for ivory in the mid-nineteenth century, to current times, plastics have become indispensable, interwoven into the very fabric of our lives. It is inexpensive, lightweight, clean, durable, and versatile. Uses range from toys to weapons of war to packaging to medical apparatuses. And where would we be without Scotch tape, especially during the holidays?

It also lasts, apparently, forever, as every piece of unrecycled plastic ever invented is still with us. While plastics live on in landfills across the planet, of most recent concern is the effect on the oceans, now host to sizable “garbage patches” in the Pacific. Contrary to popular opinion, these are not giant islands of plastic bags and other recognizable debris; rather, they are huge areas (guesstimated to range from the size of Texas to the size of Russia) of very tiny pieces of plastic resulting from the breakdown of larger items, some 79,000 metric tons, or about 1.8 trillion pieces.

This paper will examine the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” as a case suitable for classroom exploration in engineering ethics. Specifically, it will explore the following:

• Definition of the problem (the non-technical aspects) • Identification of ethical issues • Potential classroom assignments/exercises • Overall significance

Conference attendees should find this information both useful and disturbing: useful in the sense that it offers a new and very timely topic for students, and disturbing because of profound impact on an irreplaceable piece of the planet necessary for existence as well as an essential food source: a 2016 report from the World Economic Forum indicates that in a few short years, by 2050, the weight of plastics in the world’s oceans will exceed the weight of fish.

Dyrud, M. A. (2019, June), Plastics: Floating Ethical Flotsam Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--33172

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