Dina Maniar* & Nathália Helena Azevedo (University of Groningen)
Plastic production worldwide continues to grow exponentially, with only 9% of the 400 million tons produced annually being recycled. The numbers on the production and impact of plastic on the world as we know it are overwhelming. The United Nations Environmental Programme predicts that by 2040 the plastic flux in aquatic environments could reach 29 million tons. Microplastic has been found in the human bloodstream and other living beings, and its effects are not yet fully known. The success of the plastic industry also means that it has an undisputable role in addressing the current environmental crisis. Researchers proposed bioplastics in the last two decades as an alternative to conventional petroleum-based plastic. Bioplastics are a diverse group of materials with various properties and applications. Quoting the definition from European Bioplastic, a plastic material is defined as bioplastic if it is either bio-based, biodegradable or possesses both properties. Bio-based means that a polymer (partly) is derived from biomass such as corn, sugarcane, or cellulose. Biodegradation is a process in which microorganisms in the environment convert the polymer into natural substances such as water and carbon dioxide.
The question becomes how could concepts related to plastics and bioplastics be incorporated into the curriculum, especially in out-of-school contexts. Engaging with such concepts provides opportunities to explore the composition of materials, the environmental and social impacts of their use, the implications of production technologies, recycling and other issues.
We propose some ways through which educators might help students explore this theme by getting to know new places and with the support of the local community:
- Students visit a packaging company to understand how plastic and bioplastic are used
- Students visit parks and other green spaces to observe how plastic is disposed of and to estimate the amount of plastic discarded in these spaces
- Students visit laboratories and research centres to interview scientists and plastic specialists to understand how new materials are created
- Students visit eco-farms and ecovillages to understand the possibility of living with less plastic
- Students use the school's green spaces to experiment with the decomposition of different types of materials, including bioplastic
- Students visit the city's Environment Department to understand what the city is doing to deal with plastic pollution
- Students visit aquariums and aquatic animal sanctuaries to explore the impact of plastics on marine life
- Students collect plastic from parks and beaches and classify plastics by colour, texture and type
- Students interview community members to estimate the average time that plastic items such as bottles, straws, and plastic bags are in use
- Students interview community members to identify what the community knows about plastics reuse, recycling and bioplastic
- Students develop a plastic awareness campaign and an action plan for the community
To learn more about it:
Filiciotto, L., & Rothenberg, G. (2021). Biodegradable plastics: Standards, policies, and impacts. ChemSusChem, 14(1), 56-72.
Mafuta, C., Baker, E., Rucevska, I., Thygesen, K., Appelquist, L. R., Westerveld, L., ... & Schoolmeester, T. (2021). Drowning in Plastics: Marine Litter and Plastic Waste Vital Graphics. United Nations Environmental Programme.
Vethaak, A. D., & Legler, J. (2021). Microplastics and human health. Science, 371(6530), 672-674.
*Dr. Dina Maniar is an expert in polymers and is part of the OTTER project advisory board.
Photo by Zen Chung