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Plastic garbage pictured on a landfill. (Image Credit: Yevhen Smyk/ iStock)

Planet versus Plastics

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Plastic waste has infiltrated every corner of our planet, from oceans and waterways to the food chain and even our bodies. Only 9% of plastic is recycled due to factors including poor infrastructure, technical challenges, lack of incentives, and low market demand.   

“We need legislation that disincentivizes big oil from producing plastic in the first place, coupled with enforced single use plastic taxes and fines,” says Desiree LaBeaud, professor of pediatric infectious diseases and senior fellow at  Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “We also need truly compostable alternatives that maintain the convenient lifestyle that plastic allows us now."

Plastic presents a problem like no other. Stanford scholars are approaching it from many angles: exploring the connection between plastic and disease, rethinking how plastic could be reused, and uncovering new ways of breaking down waste. In honor of Earth Day and this year’s theme – Planet vs. Plastics – we’ve highlighted stories about promising solutions to the plastics challenge. 

Environmental changes are altering the risk for mosquito-borne diseases

Our changing climate is dramatically altering the landscape for mosquito-borne diseases, but other changes to the physical environment - like the proliferation of plastic trash - also make an impact, as mosquitos can breed in the plastic waste we discard. 

Since this study published, HERI-Kenya, a nonprofit started by Stanford infectious disease physician Desiree LaBeaud, has launched HERI Hub, a brick and mortar education hub that educates, empowers and inspires community members to improve the local environment to promote health.

Using plastic waste to build roads, buildings, and more

Stanford engineers Michael Lepech and Zhiye Li have a unique vision of the future: buildings and roads made from plastic waste. In this story, they discuss obstacles, opportunities, and other aspects of transforming or upcycling plastic waste into valuable materials. 

Since this white paper was published, students in Lepech's life cycle assessment course have explored the environmental and economic impacts of waste management, emissions, and energy efficiency of building materials for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Arts. In addition to recycled plastic, they proposed a photovoltaic system and conducted comparison studies to maximize the system’s life cycle. This work is being translated into an upcoming publication.

Stanford researchers show that mealworms can safely consume toxic additive-containing plastic

Mealworms are not only able to eat various forms of plastic, as previous research has shown, they can also consume potentially toxic plastic additives in polystyrene with no ill effects. The worms can then be used as a safe, protein-rich feed supplement.

Since this study published, it has inspired students across the world to learn about and experiment with mealworms and plastic waste. Stanford researchers involved with this and related studies have been inundated with requests for more information and guidance from people inspired by the potential solution.

Grants tackle the plastics problem

Stanford Woods Institute has awarded more than $23 million in funding to research projects that seek to identify solutions to pressing environment and sustainability challenges, including new approaches to plastic waste management. 

Converting polyethylene into palm oil

This project is developing a new technology to convert polyethylene — by far the most discarded plastic — into palm oil. The approach could add value to the plastic waste management chain while sourcing palm oil through a less destructive route.

Improving plastic waste management

Plastic bottles in a trash pile

This project aims to radically change the way plastic waste is processed via a new biotechnology paradigm: engineering highly active enzymes and microbes capable of breaking down polyesters in a decentralized network of “living” waste receptacles. 

More stories from Stanford

Eight simple but meaningful things you can do for the environment

A new, artistic perspective on plastic waste

Whales eat colossal amounts of microplastics

A greener future begins with small steps

Last straw: The path to reducing plastic pollution

Plastic ingestion by fish a growing problem

Stanford infectious disease expert Desiree LaBeaud talks trash, literally, on Stanford Engineering's The Future of Everything podcast.