September 17, 2020 | Updated: June 23, 2021
Plastics that are dumped into our oceans, rivers, lakes and shores are dangerous for marine life because as they break down, they turn into smaller pieces of plastic called microplastics that fish, marine mammals and birds often mistake for food. Microplastics are dangerous for fish because plastic does not fully biodegrade and can cause adverse health effects in the fish and the animals that eat them. Luckily, technologists like IEEE member Krista Beardy, use technology to help monitor and understand how plastic is negatively affecting the waters we use daily.
“The research I am conducting can be classified as a ‘baseline’ analysis,” says Beardy. “To rectify the problem of marine based plastic pollution, we must first understand and identify all facets of the situation we are currently facing. From the chemistry behind polymer science, to the effects on marine wildlife, to how ocean currents distribute and concentrate plastic pollution, all of these questions have yet to be answered in full.”
Beardy explains that plastic is not actually toxic – it’s the additives like thermoplastics, polypropylene, polyethylene and polyvinyl chloride that we put into plastic that are dangerous for marine life to consume.
“The problem is that plastic is very rarely just plastic,” says Beardys. “These plastic products are enriched with a variety of additives that are designed to improve performance, to reduce costs and to enhance those final properties.”
Innovative Technologies Recycling Plastics
Utilizing drones, robotics and AI technology helps researchers understand and monitor our oceans and waterways to ensure that all living organisms have a clean environment. Beardy also explains that there are a lot of innovative ideas being explored to help society in reduction, reuse and recycle programs.
“Ideas have emerged such as using plastic surplus for roadways, bricks and other building materials, to the use of plastic-to-fuel pyrolysis technology,” says Beardy. “Research is also ongoing on developing polymers and polymer substitutes that possess the capacity for accelerated degradation.”
Ultimately, the goal is to see microplastics eliminated in our global waters. We are hopeful that technologies that Beardy and other technologists are developing will help reduce our plastic waste and keep marine life and the waters they inhabit healthy.