A bright bit of news today. This weekend I turned in the rough draft of my biomimicry project about creating a biodegradable alternative to plastic. When I started this research back in 2019, I never imagined that it would take on the relevance it has today. In a time when it’s easy and understandable to feel useless or helpless, this project has given me an intense sense of purpose.
Being in NYC amid the coronavirus, there’s a lagging threat to our environment that isn’t yet coming into focus because we have to be focused now on protecting and saving human lives and protecting our healthcare workers and first responders. All of this personal protective equipment (PPE) of masks, gowns, gloves, and respirators, as well as medical equipment like ventilators, syringes, tubing, IV drips, etc. are all made from plastic. Even all of the sanitary wipes we’re using – personal and household disinfecting – are all plastic. What we will eventually have to reckon with is that coronavirus has created an exponential spike in plastic waste that may be very slow to ease, and it will have dire environmental consequences.
It happens to be that polypropylene, the kind of plastic I study, is one of the most popular plastics used in healthcare. Most of this plastic medical waste is either buried or burned. It’s not recycled because it’s (rightly) considered biohazard waste. With coronavirus, we’re obviously seeing a huge uptick in the amount of this plastic waste from hospitals, as well as more plastic waste from homes, offices, restaurants, stores, etc. because of disinfecting wipes. The increased demand is also causing us to extract and process more fossil fuels which significantly contribute to climate change.
This will eventually become a problem because plastic is already a huge issue that’s contributing to climate change and the degrading of our ecosystems. Now, it will exacerbate a difficult problem even further. Anything that accelerates climate change even further contributes to creating an environment where viruses are more likely to thrive. It’s a vicious, ugly cycle.
So what could make a difference? Creating a biodegradable, virus-resistant alternative to plastic as the raw material to create PPE, medical devices, and healthcare products. That’s what I’m working on with the lab I’m collaborating with here in New York City. This research has now taken on an added importance and urgency. We’ll be polishing this research over the next two weeks and submitting for funding months sooner than we ever imagined we would. Our hope is that we will be able to create a company to create jobs to create products that create the opportunity for a greener, healthier healthcare system that will be much better prepared when a public health crisis like this finds us again (and it is a matter of when and not if). It will also help us create a cleaner, healthier world in general if we are successful in replacing plastic with a biodegradable alternative that has all of plastic’s virtues and none of its vices.
We have a long way to go and we have a lot of hurdles to clear but beginning this work during this time feel like a way to make some progress. At the very least, it helps me feel like I’m doing what I can to be both helpful and useful from where I am with what I have.