Academic Minute Podcast

Erin Tuttle, Assumption University – Sunlight: An Aid in Removing Plastic Pollution

On Assumption University Week: Removing plastic pollution could be critical to our future.

Erin Tuttle, assistant professor in the department of biological and physical sciences, explores how.

Erin Tuttle is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological and Physical Sciences at Assumption University. Her primary area of research focuses on environmental processes involving anthropogenic materials. Specifically, her ongoing studies examine sunlight-mediated degradation of plastics and analytical methods for detection of plastics in environmental samples. Erin received her Ph.D. in Chemistry from Northeastern University and her B.S. from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Sunlight: An Aid in Removing Plastic Pollution

A world without plastic may seem impossible today, however the use of plastics only began in the 1950’s. The idea of single-use and disposable items entered the mainstream and plastic, being inexpensive and easily manufactured, was the obvious choice. By mapping plastic use researchers estimate that 70% of all plastic has been thrown away. Unfortunately, billions of metric tons of this plastic trash are polluting the planet, with large amounts entering the oceans.

While plastic pollution is a global crisis, research conducted over the past decade reveals that plastic may not be as permanent as we once thought.

Plastics contain long chains of strong chemical bonds that are resistant to most bacteria and enzymes. This resistance is why common plastics like polyethylene are not biodegradable and can remain intact in the environment for hundreds of years. However, we now know that the chemical bonds in plastic are susceptible to a specific chemical reaction instigated by sunlight. When plastic is exposed to consistent sunlight, for example if the pollution is floating on the ocean, the bonds break.

This breakdown is visible to the naked eye. The surface of the plastic will become brittle and crack, and the item will shed nanoplastics. We don’t yet understand all the effects of nanoplastics, but there is considerable evidence of negative health risks associated with nanoplastic exposure.

The research conducted into sunlight-induced plastic breakdown provides significant hope for plastic pollution. Even with sunlight the existing pollution will still take decades to disappear. However, if we can reduce our dependency on single-use plastic items, and prevent new pollution from entering the environment, sunlight will help our oceans and rivers recover returning them to pristine, plastic-free, natural places.


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