First up, we had Dr James Wilson, a postdoctoral researcher at RSCI Dublin, who is currently researching in the field of polymer chemistry. His at PubhD aimed to challenge the current perception of plastic as being wholly negative, by highlighting how new ‘good’ plastics are being developed and used in both industry and medicine.
Plastics that are non-degradable such as PET, HDPE, PVC & LDPE, which are frequently dumped and accumulated in areas like the ‘Great Pacific Garbage patch’. The reason these materials are so harmful to our environment is the non-degradable properties of these synthetic polymers. Therefore, remain in the environment for extended periods and can accumulate in animals leading to toxic effects.
James and his colleagues are working on the production of new polymers, and degradable plastics, one example he gave is the recent uptake in Polylactic Acid (or PLA) plastic bottles, which can be broken down and recycled more efficiently, significantly reducing environmental impact. James and the Heise Group in RSCI are working on making polypeptide polymers that can break down naturally over time.
These polypeptide polymers already have applications in medicine such as using 3D printers to create bone tissue scaffolds that can be inserted into a broken bone and naturally degrade over time as bone tissue heals, considerably reducing the risk of amputations. Polypeptides have also been made to form stents due to their plasticity, it allows for minimally invasive surgery, and they can also be coated with antibiotics and other chemicals to help with treatments.
Throughout this talk, James reiterated the point that many of the plastics made have good legitimate uses and are environmentally safe. Although, as a society, we need to press for more change from both governing bodies and industries to invest in material science research innovations and move away from harmful single-use plastics. Through the innovations in polymer and material science, we can vastly reduce the waste we produce, and even improve our health by doing so!