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Working to Preemptively Respond to the Problem of Plastic Pollution

Grace Wade | May 7, 2019
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Approximately half of all plastic that is produced is designed to be used only once and then thrown away. Consider for a moment how many plastic straws, cups, and utensils are discarded during lunch hour at a single restaurant. Despite its single-use lifespan, most of this plastic will persist for hundreds of years—eventually making its way into the environment and into the food and water we consume. That is why Cristina Negri, director of Argonne National Laboratory’s environmental science division, called plastics one of the worst misdesigns in history.

Negri’s work at Argonne focuses on understanding environmental risks that stem from human activity and preventing potential environmental problems caused by materials during the design process. For her, the problem of plastic pollution is a perfect case, and that is why she is one of the collaborators at the Program on Plastics, Ecosystems, and Public Health at the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern University (ISEN). 

The program is ISEN’s latest initiative, and it aims to not just address the challenges related to the global use and accumulation of plastics, but to deliver scalable solutions. Taking a multidisciplinary approach to plastics, the program focuses on three research areas: materials and product innovation; air, land and water ecosystem dynamics; and public health impacts. Negri’s team at Argonne looks into all three of these areas to then develop different materials or solutions that will not have a negative impact on the environment and human health. 

“The concept of responsible innovation and of pre-empting some of these environmental problems is one that goes beyond plastics,” she said. “But plastics is a really good example of that, one that we want to address.” 

When it comes to developing substitutes for the polymer used in plastics, Negri expressed how difficult this can be. While some materials have been, they do not perform nearly as well. Dyes and colors don’t stay on or they warp shape over time, becoming unusable. 

“Research needs to happen that combines those two requirements, the environmental requirements and the functional requirements,” she pointed out. 

However, she hopes that ISEN’s program will create a basis for multidisciplinary teams to tackle the challenge of plastics. She also hopes that collaboration will extend beyond the scientific community and into the realm of industries. These researchers can join forces with industry to develop new tools and methods for them to better their products or services.