Contamination of the environment with plastic is a long-recognized problem, but in recent years, there has been a remarkable increase in public attention and outcry regarding plastic pollution. The low cost and durability of plastic materials, which make them desirable for many applications, are the same factors that contribute to their accumulation. The low cost lowers the barrier to short-term and single use applications and the durability means that, once in the environment, these materials are highly persistent. On this latter point, there is a growing interest and market for non-persistent, biodegradable plastic materials, which could help the problem of accumulation of plastic in the environment. This presentation will focus on several key questions about these alternative biodegradable materials: How do we know that a material is really biodegrading instead of just breaking down into microplastic? How does the receiving environment affect biodegradability? Are there applications where biodegradable plastics are viable alternatives to conventional plastics? What are the challenges that we face from an environmental chemistry perspective?
An Environmental Chemist’s View of Biodegradable Plastics
October 15, 12:00pm Central
Department of Environmental Systems Science, ETH Zurich
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Professor Kristopher McNeill has been a professor of environmental chemistry at ETH Zurich in the Institute of Biogeochemistry and Pollutant Dynamics, Department of Environmental Sciences, since 2009. Previously, he was professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Minnesota for about nine years. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Reed College in Portland, OR, and his doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley. He was a post-doctoral associate at the Masschusetts Institute of Technology. Professor McNeill’s research group studies environmentally relevant chemical reactions, with a focus on the catalytic and photocatalytic transformations in aquatic systems. The group is studying environmental chemistry in aquatic systems, with a focus on elucidating reaction mechanisms. Currently, the group is studying photochemical processes in surface waters, the degradation of pharmaceutical and personal care product contaminants, the fate of amino acidbased molecules in natural systems and degradation of synthetic plastics in soil.