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In 2020, PLOS ONE published a Collection of research entitled Plastics in the Environment, submitted to a Call for Papers on this important topic. A year later, we are checking in with some of the authors who are a part of this collection, to hear their thoughts on where this research field is headed, and what all of us can do to support their work. They discuss their motivations for going into this field in the first place, the importance of reliable data, the collaborative nature of their work, and how recycling might change in the future.
In this first installment of two, we hear from Amanda Laverty (NOAA), Lauge P W Clausen (Technical University of Denmark) and Elisabeth von der Esch (GEOMAR).
What inspired you to want to work in this field? What path did you take to where you are today?
AL: Growing up appreciating the outdoors by way of camping and hiking, I’ve always had a passion for protecting and preserving the environment. Over time, I developed a particular passion for the ocean – likely stemming from my parents’ love for scuba diving. My path wasn’t necessarily linear, but once I discovered that I could go to school to study the ocean, I was all in. Lab research with my undergraduate advisor – and co-author on this paper – Dr. Fred Dobbs, fueled my interest in aquatic microbial ecology and inspired me to attend graduate school. For my master’s thesis, I was determined to incorporate my long-term interest in marine debris with Fred’s background in microbial ecology, and that combination is what ultimately led us to this niche research.
Following graduate school, I headed to Washington, D.C. after receiving Virginia Sea Grant’s John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship — a year-long fellowship that brings approximately 65 post-graduate students from across the United States to the Nation’s Capital to experience the science-policy interface. During my fellowship, I worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program and learned about marine debris prevention, removal, research, emergency response, and regional coordination at the federal level. The fellowship was a pivotal point in my life, and ultimately led me to where I am today.
LPWC: The abundance of plastic pollution in the environment has been a main motivator for why I want to address the issue. Also, being part of the solution to a “real” problem and help solve it is of great motivation to me.
I was raised by passionate biologist and thus my interest for nature was nourished in my childhood. As an adult, I pursued a career as an environmental engineer to help solve the many environmental issues we face. After I graduated, I went into consultancy but returned to academia to pursue a Ph.D. within the field of phytoremediation – studying uptake of pollutants to plants and their use for remediation of contaminated sites. During my Ph.D. I grew more and more interested in the regulatory aspects of environmental management and stakeholder inclusion. Using the blatant cases of plastic pollution and nanomaterials as an outset, I got involved on two large projects, MarinePlastic and Mistra Environmental Nanosafety Phase II, providing funding for a 3-year postdoc position at the Technical University of Denmark exploring the topics.
EvdE: Today I am a Postdoc at GEOMAR and develop sensors to explore the ocean. The path was of course filled with many adventures in chemistry and occasional expeditions. In my PhD at the Technical University of Munich, I chose to work on automating the quantification of microplastic as sometimes the best thing that you can contribute to a problem is reliable data.
What do you see are the biggest hurdles that we need to overcome in order to tackle plastic pollution in the environment?
AL: In my mind, the biggest hurdle to overcoming plastic pollution in the environment is preventing its accumulation in the first place. Removal and research are unquestionably important pieces of this very complex puzzle, but the issue will undoubtedly persist and intensify without prevention. The NOAA Marine Debris Program has a great analogy for this: if we walked into our home and found that our kitchen sink was overflowing, our first step would be to turn off the faucet – not to begin mopping up the water. Without ‘turning off the tap’ on plastic pollution, we will never be able to adequately address the issue. In order to begin effecting change, efforts should focus on behavior change at the individual, community and industry levels, as well as radical policy change at the state, national, and international levels.
LPWC: The transition to a circular plastic economy will be the main obstacle to overcome. To achieve this, a fundamental change to our society will have to be implemented in a scale that have not been seen before. This includes behavioral changes at all levels of the society (industry, policy and consumer level) but also changes in perception and mindset.
The circular plastic chain is a subtle thing, requiring that one part of the chain deliver services to the next. Failure at one part leads to a break in the chain, making the system fragile. E.g. a producer of a plastic component require a reliable flow of recycled plastics in sufficient quantity and quality to deliver their service to consumers, which must be facilitated by the society. This dependency makes the implementation phase challenging, as implementation at one stage only can be successful when the previous and subsequent steps are mature and ready for the transition.
EvdE: I believe that plastic is essential for our modern world, as there is just no alternative as versatile and cheap as plastic. This is also true for the packaging industry. Here plastic serves as a very lightweight, durable, safe and recyclable solution to keeping products fresh. The problem however arises, when we don’t recycle our plastic and instead deposit it in landfills, form where it can enter the environment in large quantities. Therefore, improving the recycling of polymers is a key hurdle to overcome. Another large source of microplastic in the environment is the abrasion of car tires, which is unfortunately exactly what we want tires to do to provide grip.
What are the areas where you see promise for helping us deal with plastic pollution? Either in the short term or long term?
AL: I see a lot of promise and hope for our future in younger generations. Young people across the globe are taking ownership of our crises, forming innovative solutions, and calling for urgent action in areas such as plastic pollution, climate change, environmental justice, and many others. With impassioned, dedicated, and emboldened youth, I see real promise in dealing with plastic pollution on a global scale. I’m hopeful that we can each do our parts in lifting up and creating space for the next generation of bright young minds to succeed.
LPWC: My research focuses on bridging societal and regulatory needs. I hope to help regulators identify and address important issues related to plastic pollution and the society by pinpointing where changes can or should be implemented. Also, I hope to raise the citizen awareness and stakeholder engagement with respect to plastic pollution and its consequences, thereby preparing the ground for a smooth(er) transition to a circular plastic economy.
EvdE: In my opinion, we need to stop designing non-recyclable products and we need to factor in the disposal/recycling cost into the price of a product. As I worked with yogurt cups in my research, I asked myself why these cups are made from Polyethylene, Polyethylene terephthalate and Polystyrene among other polymers if the function of the cup “keeping yogurt fresh” is the same in all instances. Therefore, I would assume that these polymers are equally suited to the task. The recyclability of these polymers however differs. In instances such as these the more recyclable alternative should always preferred by the manufacturer. Applying this mindset or reevaluation could potentially, among many other advancements, help us get towards a more circular economy.
How important are open science practices in your field – e.g. data sharing, code sharing, protocols sharing, preprints etc.?
AL: Open science practices are extremely important in this field. Open science improves the quality of work, increases the reproducibility of findings by other researchers, promotes collaboration, and builds greater confidence in science overall. Without a solid understanding of how other researchers are conducting experiments and collecting data, comparison of our datasets may be ‘apples to oranges’, ultimately proving of little utility in a broader context, limiting understanding, and creating inefficiencies in resource utilization.
LPWC: In my opinion, the most important thing about open science is that knowledge gets free to everyone – scientists, regulators and not least, the public. Sharing knowledge is a fundamental prerequisite for transparency, which again is paramount for trust making and stakeholder engagement. Further, open science is of major importance for reproducibility of science.
EvdE: Open science is very important to me, as the goal is to solve problems and everyone should be welcome to contribute. Form my experience there is more to research then can ever be achieved by a single person or research group and everyone can benefit from working together on fair and quality controlled terms.
How does interdisciplinarity fuel your work? Do you often collaborate with researchers from other fields or others outside of academia?
AL: The research we published with PLOS ONE included an important collaboration with our coauthors from the Alfred-Wegener-Institute to perform Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) analysis. Without this collaboration, we would not have had the tools to examine and determine microplastic sample types, which was a vital component of our study.
Though I’ve left my university, I think that if I had decided to pursue a career in academia I would have continued to seek out collaborations with other researchers who could contribute tools, analyses, and varying perspectives that I wouldn’t otherwise have access to. Additionally, I would be certain to engage with policy makers at all levels of government in order to help inform research questions that could prove useful in decision making.
LPWC: My research works at the interface of policy and society. It requires a detailed understanding of the regulatory landscape as well as the societal needs and perceptions. As an environmental engineer working within regulatory engineering, I work with social and environmental scientists and sometimes directly with citizens themselves.
EvdE: I love working with colleagues from other fields! They provide different viewpoints and solutions to questions. For me this is a very important source of inspiration and provides excellent learning opportunities.
What advice would you give to someone who is interested in helping with the efforts to reduce plastic pollution – whether as a researcher or a private citizen? How can the rest of the world support the work that you and your colleagues do?
AL: I would say that each of us play a critical role in the reduction of plastic pollution. It is our job as researchers, global citizens, and change-makers to take responsibility for our actions and their consequences. It is important that we aggressively avoid or limit our use of plastic products, particularly single-use plastics and plastic packaging materials, which contribute to much of the plastic we find in the environment. We can also educate our loved ones, participate in citizen science efforts, and advocate for better policies to help create change beyond our own individual behavior. Solutions to this global issue are challenging and multifaceted, but one thing is certain: our success is hinging on our collective and active participation.
LPWC: My best advice is to be curious. This entails to stay updated and engage actively in the plastic debate – in the media, on online media and in the scientific literature. Raise questions whenever something is unclear and spread the knowledge gained on the platforms available.
EvdE: The best way to change the lifecycle of plastic from production to disposal is for manufacturers to design more sustainable products and manufacturing chains. Therefore, it is important to demand this change, as it seems that the blame for plastic pollution has been more on the consumer side for a long time and has only recently been shifting towards producers. Because even though all plastics have the recycling logo and a number indicating the polymer type that does not mean that they are collected for recycling. You might sort all of your recyclables and think you are contributing to the solution, but that does not guarantee that there is a demand for your recycled plastic and that it gets recycled at all, as only a fraction of plastic that could be recycled ends up recycled. This needs to change on a systemic rather than individual level.
If you are interested in supporting researchers that want to know where the plastic ends up in the environment, you could join a citizen science project. E.g. https://www.plastic-pirates.eu/en/about. And even though it would be best not to make a mess in the first place you could always join a plastic cleanup near you, as every little bit helps.
About the authors:
Amanda Laverty: Amanda Laverty is a budget analyst with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) within the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS). In her current role, Amanda primarily assists in the development of the annual NOAA NESDIS President’s Budget and works to ensure timely and effective presentation and use of budget information in support of NESDIS performance, goals, and objectives.
Before coming to NOAA, Amanda obtained her B.S. and M.S. in Ocean and Earth Sciences from Old Dominion University (ODU) in Norfolk, VA. She focused her master’s research on plastic pollution as a potential vector for bacteria and human pathogens. Following graduate school, Amanda moved to Washington, D.C. to join the NOAA Marine Debris Program as a 2017 Sea Grant John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellow. During this time, she served as the lead on developing content for outreach products, supported regional partner planning workshops, and led the zero-waste initiative for the Sixth International Marine Debris Conference, held in March 2018.
Lauge P W Clausen: As a Ph.D. student, Lauge studied plant and soils science, with special focus on uptake of pollutants to plants and the use of plants for remediation purposes of soil and groundwater. As a postdoc he has moved into the field of regulatory engineering, studying regulation of plastics and microplastics and nanomaterials with focus on stakeholder analysis.
Elisabeth von der Esch: Dr. Elisabeth von der Esch completed her PhD in analytical chemistry at the Institute of Hydrochemistry of the Technical University of Munich in 2021. Within her work she combined reference material production, statistical sample size reduction and image analysis to enable the development of a Raman Microscopy based automated quantification of microplastic. Based on her interest in automation of analytical chemistry she joined the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research, Kiel, to develop sensors for biogeochemical parameters in the ocean.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by contributors are solely those of individual contributors, and not necessarily those of PLOS.
Disclaimer from Amanda Laverty: All views and opinions expressed here are her own and do not represent the views of her employer.
Disclaimer from Elisabeth von der Esch: All views and opinions expressed here are her own and do not represent the views of her employer.
Featured image: Marine debris litters a beach on Laysan Island in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, where it washed ashore. (Susan White/USFWS) CC-BY