Nick Robertson, associate professor of chemistry, received $364,361 from the National Science Foundation for his student-intensive research on the synthesis and chemical recycling of plastics.
Buckles: Global use of plastic has increased twenty-fold over the past fifty years and is expected to double again in the next twenty years. Research shows there will be more plastic than fish by weight in the world’s oceans by 2050. Ugh.
Robertson: The good news is the broader public awareness of these issues is rapidly increasing, which is exactly what is needed for the passage of new legislation to minimize the use of single-use, non-biodegradable materials. Additionally, as consumers become more aware of these issues, companies will provide more goods that are more environmentally friendly. We are seeing this with simple items such as straws, cup lids, etc. It’s starting small, but it is starting quickly, so I am confident we will see improvements in our country and other advanced nations in the near future.
My bigger concern rests with developing nations. Because plastics have become so cheap, they have found their way into uses around the world. However, many developing nations lack a waste management system and will literally dump their trash into waterways. This is actually where most ocean plastic pollution is coming from and is a harder problem to solve. On a global basis, only ten-to-fourteen percent of plastic is recycled. The reuse rate is terrible compared to other materials.
You and students have been working for the last eight years on the synthesis and chemical recycling of plastics. Is that the solution or one possible solution?
We tend to think of plastics as a single material, when in fact there are thousands of different kinds of plastics that are used in many different applications. So the development of a new biodegradable material or a new chemical recycling process will not be the sole solution to all of the issues surrounding plastics. But progress in these areas can certainly help to improve the situation and that’s what we are trying to do.
My students and I develop methods for making new types of materials that we prepare using catalysts developed by other research groups. Most of the methods that we use are not likely to be technologically feasible due to the cost of the catalysts we use, but you never know what you might stumble on when working in research and development. That’s one aspect that makes the work so much fun. We have some exciting new reactions that we’re currently working on and hope to publish in the coming months. Stay tuned.
What are some things you believe we as a society could be doing to curb our reliance on plastics?
There is a lot that we can do. Throughout your day, think about where you can avoid using plastics.
• Bring reusable bags to the grocery store (paper bags have significant negative environmental impacts too).
• Make sure recyclable products end up in the recycling bin.
• You can make your desires for more environmentally friendly materials known to the companies that you frequent.
• Support representatives for public office who promote environmentally responsible policies.