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Nature Versus Plastic: A View From The Science Lab
Find out how nature organisms are adapting to the introduction of microplastics entering the food chain, and if we, humans, will pay the price.
— Mr. McGuire to Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) in the 1967 film The Graduate.
In their 100-odd-year history, plastics have evolved from their humble roots as an explosive substitute for ivory billiard balls and inexpensive material for cheap and cheerful costume jewelry to an integral part of our daily life. We can even print plastic parts at home, thanks to consumer-grade 3D printers.
But there is a dark side to all this.
Plastic waste is proliferating, threatening the food chain and our human health. And it's not limited to the plastic bottles littered on the side of the highway; plastics are also quietly disintegrating in places you might not expect, such as synthetic fabrics in your washing machine, producing microplastic particles that enter undetected into the waste stream.
The US is a top contributor to plastic waste, and single-use plastics (including wipes, plates, cups, tableware, packaging, and diapers) are a major source of plastics pollution. Unfortunately, during the pandemic, plastic waste increased dramatically (by as much as 8 million tons according to some estimates) as consumers, fearing Covid transmission, avoided sharing reusable items.
The problem is international in scope, with poorer countries often the recipient of plastics pollution discarded by richer nations. The United Nations is considering a new, legally binding treaty by 2024 to address the problem of plastics pollution globally.
And here in the US, the EPA published its own national recycling strategy in November 2021, calling for recycling 50% of municipal solid waste by 2030, funding in part by the infrastructure bill that included $350 million in grants for solid waste treatment and recycling.
But is placing the focus squarely on recycling plastics the right strategy? Probably not. Instead, laboratory researchers are calling for a more holistic approach that addresses the full circular lifecycle of plastics, including making plastics that degrade quickly on their own without the need for intervention.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, A Symbol Of Failed Efforts To Control Plastics Pollution
The poster child for plastics pollution is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (see on the right).
Prevailing winds and ocean currents create spinning gyres that trap floating plastics in continent-sized fields that can be seen from space.
Environmentalists, such as the young Dutch inventor Boyan Slat, founder of The Ocean Cleanup, have created innovative new technologies to pick up trash in the ocean, as well as rivers and harbors.