April 30, 2021
Plastics do a lot of good. They’re sturdy, they’re clean, and the COVID-19 pandemic has really highlighted their benefits, with personal protective equipment like disposable gloves and masks.
But its durability is also its biggest problem. We’ve all seen photos of piles of plastic trash washed up on beaches, and animals surrounded by plastic bags and straws. Those materials will take decades, if not centuries, to break down. Even as it breaks apart, it can become millions of microplastic particles that cause their own problems.
So how do we tackle one of the biggest environmental crises of our time? Scientists are working on both ends of the plastic life cycle to come up with solutions. Breaking down the plastic that’s already out there, and coming up with alternative materials that could be better for the planet.
Guest host John Dankosky interviews two scientists doing great work on this topic: Dr. Francesca Kerton, professor of chemistry at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s, Canada, works on alternative polymers that could replace some plastics. Her latest research is focused on a polymer made from fishery waste. She’s joined by Dr. Gregg Beckham, senior research fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, who works on enzymes that can break down plastics to its smaller building blocks for easier recycling.
Despite their small-sounding name, microplastics are a big deal. That’s because these tiny pieces of plastic debris can wind up just about anywhere. In fact, we know microplastics are in our oceans and our soil, and they can also get into what we eat and what we drink.
Since this is a relatively new problem, we don’t have a lot of long-term research on their effects. But investigations studying microplastics have already influenced legislation, and prompted innovations for combating plastic pollution.
Dr. Imogen Napper, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom, studied microbeads in facial scrubs. Her work led to a microbead ban in the United States and other countries. She says we need to rethink how we use plastic in our everyday lives for the health of the planet.
“It’s a fantastic material that’s so durable,” Napper tells Science Friday. “But we don’t need to make so many single-use applications that could last a lifetime,” especially when these products are only used briefly.
Napper and host John Dankosky talk about all the strange places microplastics have been found, and what role individual consumers play in combating an issue that can seem insurmountable. This conversation was held in front of a live Zoom audience.