Anna - Moving Forward With Additional Environmental Pollution Detection and Reduction Ideas


This time, I have narrowed my three topics (microplastics, ocean acidification, and mercury contamination) down to one (microplastics), and I promised, I didn’t draw it out of a hat! If you solve ocean acidification, you do not solve the problems of mercury, or plastics. If you solve mercury, you do not solve the problems of ocean acidification or plastics. However, if you solve plastics, you also solve the problems of both mercury and ocean acidification.

After researching this problem, I found out that while mercury has an overall amount of 80, 000 metric tons in the ocean, microplastics had a whopping 8 million metric tons in the ocean last year alone! When I was talking to my mentor, we discussed plastics and it’s reactive ends, which causes it to bind with other things, including biologicals, organic compounds, and heavy metals mercury, especially as it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces through the waves or UV rays. Then, you end up with an ocean filled with plastics, and an unbelievably large amount of places where it can bind to other things. If you get rid of plastics, however, you can get rid of over 30 - 40% of the mercury in the oceans too. Once the mercury and plastics have been taken out of the picture, the animal population will improve greatly and will work as a buffer against ocean acidification.

When my mentor, Dr. Ann Fornof showed me some of her papers and inventions, I was amazed by how she came up with such innovative ideas. Reading those papers got me thinking that I should be thinking of unique and unusual ways to combine ideas together. Another thing she told me was an idea that was in her own research in the past. She worked with biopolymers and combined it with synthetic polymers. This idea helped me think about the fact that as plastics are breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces, their reactive ends are potentially binding with more things than I anticipated. At first, I thought that biologicals and organic materials (such as stomach acid and excrement of fish, algae, and plankton) might be playing a significant role in this process. After having gone through this exercise suggested to me through this competition, I began to think about this in a different way. I realized that microplastic contamination intersected with other major global problems including heavy metal contamination, and pollutants, including crude oil. My idea is that by cleaning up microplastics, I can also help solve some of these other major problems as well, because it's likely that these toxins are binding to microplastics, so not only might this be a way for me to identify plastics easier, but once it's removed, this will clean up the ocean much more significantly.

After receiving a number of sample products from 3M, I noticed that there seemed a trend of having more and more eco-friendly products. Some of them are natural polymers made out of real plant fibers. Also, there are starch-based highly degradable polymers which can be used to make 3D printed parts, abrasives, and can potentially replace polyethylene. This is one approach to reducing the overall problem, and it's great that 3M is at the forefront of this way of thinking, because the more they manufacture these kinds of products, the fewer plastics there will be in the future. I think that this shows a great deal of foresight on their part. Meanwhile, the plastics that are currently in the ocean will continue to break down, create more reactive surfaces for centuries, as well as cause increased bioaccumulation throughout the food chain. We need to identify them soon to not only reduce plastics, but also heavy metals, crude oil, and other toxins. One more thing is when mercury binds to plastics it will be more toxic than plastics or mercury alone, for instance, methylmercury is a major growing health concern. This might be a good area to focus on because not only might it make identification easier, it will also focus on the most dangerous toxins out there. Additionally, a detection system that can identify these dangerous hybrid toxins might not only become a good way to identify plastics themselves but might also be a way to identify the most toxic type of pollution that needs to be removed.