Each human being uses, on average, 30 kg of plastic per year. Given that global life expectancy currently stands at approximately 70 years, each person will discard some two metric tons of plastic in his or her lifetime. Multiply that by the number people on earth – which is growing constantly – and the total is staggering. In light of this, Francesco Stellacci, a full professor and head of the Supramolecular Nanomaterials and Interfaces Laboratory at EPFL's School of Engineering, began thinking about whether there was a way to solve the problem of used plastics and recycle it more effectively. Stellacci established a collaboration with Prof. Sebastian J. Maerkl in the Bioengineering Institute at EPFL and they decided to co-advise a PhD student, Simone Giaveri, the team has published its conclusions, based on scientific research, in Advanced Materials.
After reviewing the existing plastic-recycling options available, the engineers decided to think up a completely new approach. “When we use biodegradable plastics, the degradation process leaves residue that must be stockpiled or buried. The more land that is allocated for this means the less land available for farming, and there are environmental consequences to take into account as bio-degradation product necessarily change the area's ecosystem,” says Stellacci. So how can we come up with a comprehensive solution to the problem of recycling plastics? Part of the answer could very well come from nature itself.