ACS’s Committee on Environmental Improvement (CEI) has the following statement as its guiding vision: “A sustainable world enabled through the sustainable practice and use of chemistry.” As a part of our mission to advance sustainability thinking and practice across ACS and the broader society for the benefit of Earth and its people, CEI regularly evaluates future sustainability challenges.
With that in mind, CEI is reviewing the impact of single-use plastics in the environment. Naturally occurring polymers have been used by humanity for millennia, but the way we use plastics for modern applications began during the Second Industrial Revolution in the 1900s and took off during and after World War II. Developments in chemistry were central to the growth of those new applications and their broad usage.
Plastics were synthesized from inexpensive petrochemical-derived feedstocks and evolved to generate a large class of commercial and commodity materials. Thanks to a broad range of material properties, including chemical stability, excellent barrier properties and tailored viscoelastic properties, single-use plastics became an increasing share of the plastics produced and used worldwide.
The scale of the problem plastics present is becoming clearer and more concerning every day. A rising volume of research shows that plastics are appearing everywhere, from human infrastructure to remote locations, even in individuals’ bloodstreams. In particular, reduction in marine pollution is becoming a top priority for global leaders, who are committing to aggressive actions to end plastic leakage into the ocean.
As we celebrate 100 years of macromolecular chemistry in 2020, CEI sees this as an opportune time to discuss the work being done to characterize and reduce the impact of polymers on aquatic life. ACS has the standing, resources, and a diverse membership which can engage all relevant stakeholders. ACS can be a leader in coordinating a synergistic strategy to tackle the important—but often poorly defined—parameters of plastic waste in the environment.
CEI is trying to understand the scope of the problem and identify ways that ACS can contribute to solutions. As a first step, we are developing a guiding document on ACS’s contributions and stakeholder needs regarding plastic-waste accumulation in Earth’s oceans and waterways. The goal of this document is to identify ongoing efforts and tools within ACS that can address the problem of ocean plastics and recommend steps the society can take to mitigate this issue.
To understand key components of this problem we are asking ACS members for help in five areas:
1. understanding the perspectives of various ACS community stakeholders in this challenge, what progress has been made, determining the effects of molecular and macromolecular chemistry on aquatic environments and existing deficiencies, in order to understand and solve the ocean plastics problem
2. describing environmental considerations, systems approaches, and the common factors that must be specified to establish sustainability metrics and benchmarks to understand the impacts of existing plastic waste
3. determining the best terminology to describe the chemical and environmental effects of ocean plastics, such as describing the chemical components of plastics, key environmental terminology, and critical data and methods that make studies translatable and transferable across technical disciplines and facilitate larger analyses
4. identifying interdisciplinary and/or multifaceted (systems) approaches that could impact the ocean plastics issue
5. engaging ACS stakeholders on research opportunities, programs, and executive-level actions
If you are interested in engaging with us on these challenges, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition, CEI has proposed a Division of Environmental Chemistry symposium for the ACS Spring 2021 National Meeting to coincide with the theme of “Macromolecular Chemistry: The Second Century.” The symposium will bring together interdisciplinary chemists to present their research on plastic waste in marine environments. The symposium will feature a forum for lively discussion for speakers and attendees. Please mark your calendars.
The first century of macromolecular chemistry was a huge success. Ingenious chemists and engineers contributed to advances in food safety, biomedical equipment, impact-mitigating materials, and countless additional examples; these innovations were possible through design, development, and optimization of material properties for numerous uses. The next grand challenge for our society is to innovate and develop sustainable next-generation materials and processes that incorporate environmental impact mitigation as a necessary benchmark not considered in first-generation plastics.
I invite you to join us in our efforts, and I look forward to your feedback.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.