Research Outreach Blog
July 19, 2022

Plastic Free July® 2022

Plastic pollutes our land, our airways, and our oceans. This month is Plastic Free July® 2022 – a global initiative to encourage everyone to eliminate plastic use for one month. The event, run by Plastic Free Foundation, invites us all to be part of the solution. Each year, over 100 million people in 190 countries take part. We’ve picked the latest plastic research for you to peruse breakthrough collective efforts to clean up the problem. Read on to learn about Microplastics pollution in the Pantanal, the potential of upcycling plastic waste for carbon capture, and how cactus could be the cruelty-free alternative for sustainable vegan leather (most commonly made from plastic).

Microplastics pollution in the Pantanal

By now, we all recognise microplastics as a huge problem in our oceans. This awareness peaked when the threat became direct to humans, through the consumption of contaminated marine produce. Unfortunately, the situation is even bleaker than we realised. Dr Pierre Girard from the Federal University of Mato Grosso has discovered microplastics in the remote Brazilian Pantanal, a huge and diverse area of swampland in South America. This not only threatens an important breadth of flora and fauna, but demonstrates the sheer ubiquity of microplastics, and the mounting challenge we face to eradicate them.

Closing the loop: upcycling plastic waste for carbon capture

Two of the most important environmental concerns of our times are CO2 emissions and plastic pollution. Dr Xiangzhou Yuan, Research Professor at the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Korea University (Seoul), and Dr Shuai Deng, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the School of Tianjin University (China), propose an approach that uses one problem to solve the other. They upcycled waste plastic bottles to a material able to attract CO2 and reduce CO2 emissions from large point sources into the atmosphere. Their approach was shown to be carbon negative, removing more CO2 than required for the production and operation of the proposed system.

Cactus: the new leather?

It’s widely known that the production of animal leather is very harmful to the environment, but leather is a staple of many industries. In answer to these concerns (and concerns about animal cruelty) there’s been a boom in alternative materials, often called vegan leather. The most common faux leathers are made with polyurethane or polyvinyl chloride – plastics. These materials are manufactured from fossil fuels and do not biodegrade, and they usually have a short lifespan and need to be replaced regularly. As an answer to this problem a variety of more eco-friendly leather alternatives have recently been developed. One of these is an organic material called Desserto®, made of nopal (or prickly pear) cactus. This alternative has the look and feel of real leather, and is used for shoes, accessories, and even car interiors.

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