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Fixing the plastic problem

Researchers tackle plastic pollution with multifaceted action plan


People sitting on yellow-colored floor with plastic items around them

Graduate research assistants in the Long Research Group, which studies how to make bioplastics out of biodegradable materials, like algae, to reduce reliance on and use of single-use plastic. From left: Clarissa Westover, Rose McDonough, Jose Sintas and Garvit Nayyar. Photos by Jeff Newton, an editorial and commercial photographer. His clients include Google, adidas Originals, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Men’s Journal, Popular Science and Forbes.

January 02, 2024

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the winter 2024 issue of ASU Thrive magazine.

When Tyler Eglen, ’14 MFA in theatre (performance) and ’21 MS in global technology and development, surveys towns, stores and gas stations — almost everywhere he looks — he sees plastic. 

While a student at ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Eglen became obsessed with finding ways to turn waste plastic into useful products and received a $5,000 grant from ASU’s Zero Waste department to build an open-source plastic shredder. He now leads the Circular Living Lab’s Plastic Microfactory, which uses scaled-up versions of his shredder to recycle plastics. 

“We make smaller-scale machines that a community can run and change the way plastics are collected,” says Eglen, who contrasted the microfactory with large multimillion dollar municipal recycling centers. 

Eglen is part of a network of researchers and policy influencers at ASU working to reduce society’s reliance on plastic — an inexpensive, adaptable material, but one with serious consequences for the health of people and all living things. Most plastics are made from petroleum, a fossil fuel contributing to global heating. Another problem? Plastics decompose into microscopic pieces that persist in the environment for decades, sometimes centuries. They contribute to health issues when they’re inside a living being. 

Eglen’s approach to upcycling plastics to give them new life is part of the response but isn’t sufficient. Instead, Eglen says, solving the plastic problem requires holistic solutions that align plastic producers’ and consumers’ values and behaviors. 

For example, he points to his team’s efforts in helping to eliminate single-use coffee cups in the Starbucks stores on Tempe campuses by fostering behavioral changes in customers. Disposable coffee cups are lined with a thin layer of plastic to help retain the hot liquid, but this plastic makes it virtually impossible to recycle the cups, he says. 

As an alternative, ASU Starbucks locations offered reusable cups. Under the direction of the ASU-Starbucks Center for the Future of People and the Planet with Starbucks, the effort involved 50 people across 10 ASU teams for the trial. Eglen’s microfactory created recycling collection bins for reusable coffee cups made from plastic recycled at ASU. With this project, 50,000 beverages were served in reusable cups over the seven-month test, helping keep cups out of landfills. It serves as a model that Starbucks can use to roll the project out to stores around the country.

Other campus projects to reduce plastic include a Zero Waste cup, sponsored by Coke and Sodexo, in Athletics venues. During the 2022–23 season, 5,922 Zero Waste cups were sold and were refilled 38,741 times. The university created a road map to reduce single-use plastics on all ASU campuses by 90% by 2026. 

Educating for impact

Another way ASU leads is in how the university educates students, emphasizing sustainability, cross-disciplinary research and actionable solutions.

“This is especially important for students who enter into regulatory and policy roles,” says Taylor Weiss, an assistant professor in the ASU Polytechnic campus Environmental and Resource Management program. “They need to see the options available and better paths forward so when they enter into these positions of power, they have the requisite knowledge to understand what’s going on instead of falling back on what was done previously.”

This holistic approach means bridging the world of science and engineering with politics and economics and exposing students to real-world challenges. 

“We keep creating wonderful technological innovations, but when that’s displacing meaningful policy — when people don’t want to do a hard thing — we just kick the can down the road,” Weiss says. 

“Sometimes the best way is to start moving forward and not keep searching for a silver bullet,” Weiss says. “At ASU, we’re trying to let students know when that is the wrong approach and when you need a broader vision where you don’t need something new to start fixing this.”

Man lying down with plastic containers covering him
PhD student Garvit Nayyar, ’20 BSE and ’23 MS in mechanical engineering, who works on making a less-harmful plastic, is covered in takeout containers, a source of single-use plastic that the research group where he works is working to replace with materials that decompose. He is part of numerous researchers at ASU working to help solve the plastic pollution problem in various ways.

Innovation at ASU

Given how important plastics have become, it would be difficult to stop making them overnight — despite the urgency.

This has led researchers like Timothy Long, director of the Biodesign Center for Sustainable Macromolecular Materials and Manufacturing, to look for ways to keep the utility of plastic while minimizing its threat by making plastics from materials more environmentally benign and easier to recycle. 

At the same time, he and his team are advancing what he calls “green chemistry,” to look for new, nontoxic sources for plastic production. Urea, for instance, is a metabolic byproduct found in urine. It may be used to make bioplastics to replace plastics found in foam mattresses and similar products, Long says.

Cutting plastic out of foam mattresses makes a difference. The global demand for polyurethane plastics used in mattresses is about 25 million tons per year and is expected to grow by 20% before 2030. The foam used in mattresses accounts for nearly a third of the total polyurethane demand, so a reduction in plastic used in mattresses could translate into millions of tons of plastic reduction. But like Weiss, Long acknowledges that innovative new foam chemistries will only be successful if integrated into the real world; his team is working on that. 

“I always tell people that I’m no longer training PhD students in chemistry — I’m training innovators, entrepreneurs and thinkers,” Long says. “There’s been a big transformation in how we tackle sustainability at ASU that comes from the realization that we need to cross boundaries like we’ve never done before. A research center that works only on the molecular level will never be successful because manufacturing processes, social practices, policy and economics must be part of a modern sustainability mission.”

Weiss agrees; new bioplastics are a critical alternative to conventional plastics. We already know how to make dozens of bioplastic materials, he says. The question is how to produce them at scale.

“Industry demand for bioplastics is high,” Weiss points out. “There isn’t enough supply to meet the demand at a reasonable price point.”

The Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation is working on the bioplastic supply problem. Algae is an aquatic plant that grows quickly and feeds on waste streams such as atmospheric CO2. As researchers at AzCATI have found, it’s also possible to genetically engineer bacteria to work with the algae to produce a bioplastic that breaks down like wood or other natural material. 

But if you’re imagining a future of algae-grown utensils in fast-food restaurants, Weiss says that could be a long way off. Although this approach to bioplastic production is sustainable, it’s also expensive and competing for more important uses — at least for now. 

Instead, the commercial markets focus on “high-value” applications like bioplastic scaffolding for organ transplants that dissolve over time, where cost is less important than performance. 

There’s been a big transformation in how we tackle sustainability at ASU that comes from the realization that we need to cross boundaries like never before.

Timothy Long, director of the Biodesign Center for Sustainable Macromolecular Materials and Manufacturing

Reducing reliance on plastics

Upcycling conventional plastics or replacing them with bioplastics are musts, but most plastics researchers emphasize that stopping the production of so many plastics in the first place is critical. 

“If your house is flooding, the first thing you do is turn off the water,” says Rolf Halden, director of the Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering. “That’s what we need to do with plastics. We have to turn off this constant input so we can begin to sort out how to capture these materials from the environment.” 

Halden doesn’t expect the $600 billion global plastic industry to shut down overnight. Still, he believes it’s possible to steer it toward more sustainable solutions with thoughtful local, federal and global policies. If a sufficiently high tax were placed on petroleum destined to be turned into plastic, for instance, it would strongly incentivize manufacturers to adopt alternative solutions. He is pushing for this approach. And students he has educated, like Charlie Rolsky, executive director of the nonprofit Shaw Institute, are too.

How to make a difference


1. Advocate for change 

You can help pressure politicians and regulators to create policies to reduce plastic production, says Rolf Halden, director of the Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering.

2. Do a plastic audit for a week or two 

Note the items you most often purchase that use plastic; work on cutting those out first, says Beth Polidoro, the program lead for marine sciences and conservation in the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes at ASU.

3. Use durable water bottles instead of single-use plastics  

Over 600 billion single-use water bottles are produced yearly, so carry a reusable water bottle to avoid these plastics, says Timothy Long, director of the Biodesign Center for Sustainable Macromolecular Materials and Manufacturing. 

4. Buy laundry or dish detergent as powders 

Choose alternatives that don’t come in plastic packaging, such as bulk powders or detergent sheets, says Leah Gerber, founding director of the CBO.

5. Learn where your recycling goes 

Putting the wrong items in the recycling bin makes it hard for waste facilities to sort plastics. Use public resources to learn what plastics can be recycled, Long says.

Leah Gerber, the founding director of the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes and a professor of conservation science, agrees that policy changes can help reduce plastic production. She also notes that in addition to changing the way we produce and recycle plastics, we also need to improve the cleanup of plastics in the environment. 

“Globally, we need to better manage plastic waste by 90% and ramp up cleanup by 40%,” Gerber says. 

Gerber’s research collaborator, Beth Polidoro, thinks about this waste management problem a lot. For the past few years, Polidoro, a senior global futures scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory and the program lead for Marine Sciences and Conservation at the CBO, has traveled to American Samoa to work on solutions for helping the residents of these small Pacific island nations manage their waste. Without much land to bury the plastic, much of it ends up in the ocean. 

Although economic incentives including recycling subsidies and other policy moves like classifying plastic as a toxic waste can help places like American Samoa address their plastic problem, consumers play a crucial role, too, Polidoro says.

“There are so many moving parts and different players that it’s easy to blame some other entity that’s not you,” she says. But, it’s critical to take responsibility for plastic consumption and explore ways to reduce usage. 

In American Samoa, for example, Polidoro has spent the past few years working with local business owners to do pilot tests on containers made from sustainable bioplastics or other alternatives. The goal? To evaluate how food containers — a major source of plastic waste on the island — can be replaced with alternatives. 

Hard, but not impossible

The complexity and magnitude of the plastic problem can make any effort to solve it feel overwhelming. Only a small fraction of this plastic, less than 10%, is recycled globally, and bioplastics still represent less than 1% of the plastic produced. 

Gerber says the outlook for the future isn’t all doom and gloom. “I work on a lot of different conservation issues, and I always think plastic is definitely one that we could solve,” she says. “There’s momentum around addressing the plastic issue, both in terms of regulatory action, the companies that produce it taking responsibility for the whole lifecycle of plastic, a growing movement in the corporate sector, and innovation in terms of alternative materials.” 

Gerber acknowledges that in addition to incentivizing a reduction in the production of plastic, there will be a lot of complex cleanup to do, given the billions of tons of plastic already produced. But as policymakers, researchers and the general public become increasingly aware of the scale and urgency of the problem, Gerber feels hopeful that it will put the world on the path to change. 

“Awareness has skyrocketed over the past 10 years, and there’s just tremendous growing momentum around interest in tackling this problem. I feel optimistic that we’ll get there,” she says.

Four people lying on ground with plastic waste around them
PhD students and researchers across ASU are helping reduce reliance on single-use plastic. Clockwise from left: Clarissa Westover, Jose Sintas, Timothy Chase and Rose McDonough.

Story by Daniel Oberhaus, a former staff writer at Wired magazine and the author of “Extraterrestrial Languages” (the MIT Press). He is an ASU alumnus, ’15 BA in English (creative writing) and philosophy, and a graduate of Barrett, The Honors College.

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