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Airdate: Mar 17, 2017
Scientist: Tim Long

Microplastics - Double-Edged Sword

Microplastics - Double-Edged Sword
Can we design plastics whose structures respond to their environment?

Microplastics - Double Edged Sword

The plastics that we use today mostly come from petroleum. They're durable, but that can cause problems when they end up in unintended places like the ocean. I'm Jim Metzner and this is the Pulse of the Planet. Tim Long is a professor of chemistry at Virginia Tech.

Long: All plastics today, for the most part, are compounds that come from the earth, but they're not necessarily designed to break down in the human body or break down in a fish's body, or break down in our ocean. They're designed to be stable. When you purchase a polyethylene terephthalate or a PET recycling code number one bottle for our water bottle, we're not expecting that to degrade as it sits in that bottle of water. It has to contain it. But now throw that bottle into the ocean. How do we design that material to do both?

It's almost like a double-edged sword. You want to contain water, yet at the same time, when that plastic bottle makes its way to the beach side and turns into microplastics, we want that plastic to degrade. So coming up with polymers whose structure could respond to the environment that they're in, that is a very, very hot area today in science. And I'm positive it's going to have great impact on plastic packaging of the future.

Scientists can do everything possible to make a polymer or a plastic more compatible with our environment, more compatible with our body or a fish's body, but at the end of the day, it demands all of us, consumers, communities across the world - whether you live on a coast line or not - to think about where the plastic package you use ends up. Can you reuse it? Can you reclaim it? Can you recycle it? Can you rethink the way that you're using plastic or could you refuse to use plastic altogether?

The legacy I want to leave as a scientist is a good one, and we can grow the plastic field responsibly using creative, innovative solutions. That's the direction that I see this field going.

Pulse of the Planet is made possible in part by the Center for Earth and Environmental Nanotechnology and the National Science Foundation.