Sustainability

Solving the plastic problem

An employee walks through plastic wastes waiting to be recycled at a sorting center in France
A sorting center in France. Photo: Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

Plastics are intertwined with our lives today — driving researchers to create plant-based versions and more efficient ways to recycle.

The big picture: From a science perspective, the biggest challenge is consumers and companies want materials that won’t degrade quickly while being used but will degrade quickly once disposed, says Andrew Dove, a professor of chemistry at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. “The world wants it both ways.”

Oh, the places plastic will go

View of collected plastic waste at Guacalillo beach, in Puntarenas, Costa Rica
Collected plastic waste at Guacalillo beach, Costa Rica. Photo: Ezequiel Becerra/AFP/Getty Images

The ubiquity of plastics has led some researchers to dub this era the Plastic Age. From macro to micro, plastics are slowly permeating our bodies, our oceans and even our air.

Why it matters: By one estimate, nearly 80% of plastic waste has accumulated in landfills or in the natural environment, and it’s uncertain how long it takes to degrade.