The Future of (Sustainable?) Plastics

The Future of Plastics with Jeannette Garcia

I met with Jeannette Garcia in the aftermath of the Reaction Conference. This young lady is a living proof that, as the saying goes, value does not await the passing of years. Garcia makes a living as an engineer, a scientist, a researcher, has initiated a research program that may revolutionize plastics—and she’s under 35.

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The road to sustainable plastics

Plastics have a bad reputation. They are often associated, not to say synonymous, with fossil fuel use and dependence to non-renewable resources. We have all seen these photos of birds hampered with abandoned plastic bags or turtles getting trapped into plastic coated fabrics. If you have been health conscious for a while, you must already know about the dreaded bisphenol A (BPA), a known endocrinal disruptor that has been recently classified as a “substance of very high concern” by the European Chemicals Agency. And yet we keep living around plastic items daily.

Plastics are needed for many of the small daily life improvements that started booming after the 1950s. You would not be reading this text on a digital support if plastics did not exist. And let’s be honest: you may favor glass bottles and glass Tupperwares to stock your supplies, but when you go travelling with a thousand things in your bags, what is the most handy? A thick, heavy—although undoubtedly vintage and aesthetic—glass bottle, equal in weight with the liquid it contains, that will break upon failing on the ground, or a thin, non-breaking plastic bottle just like those we are all familiar with?

Plastics are not going anywhere. Especially those already used that keep floating around the Earth. Thus, the point moves from getting rid of plastics to recycling them. And this is where Jeannette Garcia steps into the picture.

My guest got a Ph.D in chemistry while developing catalysts for small molecule production. She was hired by IBM before completing her studies. Today, she is a leading researcher in the area of plastics as well as one of the 35 “Innovators Under 35” selected by the MIT Technology Review. Plastics, she tells me, can become sustainable. We just have to figure out how to make most, if not all of these, remoldable.

“Plastics can be triggered with certain sorts of light, sound, or wave, to break apart by themselves.” This could solve one of the biggest ecological problems of history, not to mention the opening of a whole new field of raw material. The main problem with plastics in terms of ecology is its inability to remold once hardened and its consequent lack of biodegradability. In a nutshell, plastics are a problem when they fail to be plastic enough—remind that the Latin root plastikus refers to something that can be molded or shaped at will. Jeannette Garcia’s research could make hardened polymers plastic again.

Plastics that harden when heated are nothing new; we use them in everything from electronics to airplanes… The thermoset plastic that Garcia made, on the other hand, completely reverted to its base compound, or monomer, when soaked in acid. Now, with the right monomers and the right temperatures, Garcia can make both super-strong recyclable plastics and moldable gels that solidify in their desired shape under ultraviolet light.

For now, only a handful of newly made plastics can be “ordered” to fall apart and become reusable at will. “But technology change fast”, Garcia adds. In the course of the next 10 years, we may witness the rise of new plastics, new artificial materials and most importantly new processes of waste treatment.

It could be possible in the medium term to “clean the past” at a global scale. Capturing devices will haul the floating microplastics from the major oceanic currents that bring them. These plastics are a challenge to recycle—they have degraded over time because of UV exposure, salt water and oxidation. Their chemical properties have changed since they started floating. Even then, the proper treatments may allow these polymers to become plastic again. Could you imagine a world where plastic items and parts can be molded, or torn apart, then remolded indefinitely?

Why IBM?

I was surprised that Jeannette Garcia worked on making new plastics at IBM. Last time I checked, IBM was still an IT company, not a bottle-maker. So how did Garcia join them?

“IBM has partners for large-scale plastic production. However, they have been making their own materials for semiconductors and other computer parts.” The company has been pursuing a vertical integration strategy. Several activities related to the making of hardware, which were previously outsourced, went in.

The benefits of this integration strategy have become all the more obvious as IBM struggled to make its devices smaller and smaller. “Lots of innovation” have been going on to answer the challenge of miniaturizing. Polymer chemistry, Garcia adds, played a key role in the development of thicker chips and electronic boards. (I would also add that IBM executives may feel responsible for having made millions of hardened, 1000-years lasting plastic parts. Perhaps they feel like they should help “cleaning the past.”)

Making plastics “more sustainable and recyclable” is a major trend in plastic research now, says Garcia. Universities with chemistry departments, private labs, and major companies are getting along with the same concern. Will they succeed? At the very least Garcia has already managed to create a plastic that easily breaks apart and gets remolded.

Apart from sitting on a sofa made of plastic bottles, how to be future-ready?

At the end of our brief but gracious meeting, I ask Jeannette Garcia the same question I enjoy asking to all my guests. If they are interesting enough to talk with, they must have ideas on how to prepare for the future. Garcia is no exception. To a 15 (or 35, or more?) boy or girl who’d like to be ready, she gives the following three advices:

  1. Find something that passionates you. Anything as long as you are truly willing and committed. “Keeps you busy, on feet”, marching to the beat of your own drum.
  2. Become knowledgeable. Take the time to learn. Year after year, turn into an expert.
  3. Accept the existence of a plurality of perspectives and integrate other people’s points of view. They cannot be boiled down to what you already hold but will enrich your thought for sure.

To know more about Jeannette Garcia’s research work, check her page on IBM.

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