Arts and Sciences Matters
- National Geographic features UGA research, solutions
This month we were proud to see the work of Jenna Jambeck and the New Materials Institute featured in the cover story of National Geographic. Jambeck, who inspired UGA associate professor of chemistry Jason Locklin and other researchers at UGA to get involved with the issue of plastic waste, now work together in the NMI to lead the charge in bringing plastic alternatives that are economically viable and environmentally friendly to market.
The issue features her work, and the work of other researchers around the globe, as they piece together a full-bodied picture of just how much plastic waste ends up in our oceans. The article gives great insight into the amount of research that is done and continues to be done on the subject.
The growth of plastic production has far outstripped the ability of waste management to keep up: That’s why the oceans are under assault. “It’s not surprising that we broke the system,” Jambeck says. “That kind of increase would break any system not prepared for it.” In 2013 a group of scientists issued a new assessment of throwaway living. Writing in Naturemagazine, they declared that disposable plastic should be classified, not as a housewife’s friend, but as a hazardous material.
In recent years the surge in production has been driven largely by the expanded use of disposable plastic packaging in the growing economies of Asia—where garbage collection systems may be underdeveloped or nonexistent. In 2010, according to an estimate by Jambeck, half the world’s mismanaged plastic waste was generated by just five Asian countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka.
“Let’s say you recycle 100 percent in all of North America and Europe,” says Ramani Narayan, a chemical engineering professor at Michigan State University who also works in his native India. “You still would not make a dent on the plastics released into the oceans. If you want to do something about this, you have to go there, to these countries, and deal with the mismanaged waste.”
The longer feature article is well worth the read. Further, in another accompanying article in the issue, Jambeck talks about how this problem, and the solutions, are truly global. What one country does about the issue impacts another.
Biodegradable plastics have been around since the late 1980s. They initially were marketed with the implied promise that they’d somehow disappear once they were disposed of, just as leaves on the forest floor are decomposed by fungi and soil microbes. It hasn’t quite worked out that way.
Biodegradables don’t live up to their promise, for example, in the dark, oxygen-free environment of a commercial landfill or in the cool waters of the ocean, if they should end up there. You can’t throw them in your backyard compost either. To break down, they require the 130-degree heat of an industrial composter. Many industrial composters accept only plastics that meet certain standards, ensuring they will leave no fragments behind that can harm the environment or human health. And if you throw some biodegradables in with recyclables, you might ruin the latter, creating a mix that can no longer be relied on to make durable new plastic.
In 2015 the United Nations Environment Programme wrote off biodegradables as an unrealistic solution that will neither reduce the amount of plastic flowing into the oceans nor prevent potential chemical or physical harm to marine life. It concluded that the label “biodegradable” may actually encourage littering.
Some engineers are looking for ways around these obstacles. Jenna Jambeck and her colleagues at the University of Georgia’s New Materials Institute are using polymers synthesized by microbes to make packaging they hope will compost readily and biodegrade in the ocean. Corn chip bags are their first target.
The article also gives some easy solutions to this problem that we can all put into place in our daily lives now. Below are tips for how you can do your part to reduce the amount of plastic waste that ends up in our oceans:
Six Things You Can Do (and Feel No Pain)
1. Give up plastic bags. Take your own reusable ones to the store. A trillion plastic shopping bags are used worldwide every year, and 100 billion in the United States alone—that’s almost one per American per day. The average Dane, in contrast, goes through four single-use bags per year. Denmark passed the first bag tax in 1993.
2. Skip straws. Unless you have medical needs, and even then you could use paper ones. Americans toss 500 million plastic straws every day, or about 1.5 per person.
3. Pass up plastic bottles. Invest in a refillable water bottle. Some come with filters if you’re worried about water quality. A handful of cities, including Bundanoon, Australia, and San Francisco, have banned or partially banned bottled water. But around the world, nearly a million plastic beverage bottles are sold every minute.
4. Avoid plastic packaging. Buy bar soap instead of liquid. Buy in bulk. Avoid produce sheathed in plastic. And while you’re at it, give up plastic plates and cups. The French are (partially) banning the stuff.
5. Recycle what you can. Even in rich countries, recycling rates are low. Globally, 18 percent of all plastic is recycled. Europe manages 30 percent, China 25—the United States only 9.
6. Don’t litter. The Ocean Conservancy has run beach cleanups for 30 years. Of the top 10 types of trash they find, the only nonplastic item is glass bottles. Worldwide, 73 percent of beach litter is plastic: cigarette butts (the filters), bottles and caps, food wrappers, grocery bags, polystyrene containers. In 2016 the conservancy collected 9,200 tons of trash in 112 countries—around a thousandth of what enters the ocean each year.
We are proud to see our researchers' involvement highlighted in National Geographic. Kudos to Jambeck, Locklin and all at the New Materials Institute. We look forward to learning more about your research on plastic in our oceans and potential solutions via new alternatives.