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Microplastics At Core of Emerging Fields of Study for VA Tech Researchers

We use plastic in almost everything from the clothes we wear to the furniture in our homes to the tires on the cars we drive. Plastics even are used in personal care products such as toothpaste and shampoo. And as we work and play and perform everyday tasks like laundry, fibers from these plastics shed and spread, traveling by air, land, and water.

Scientists have long believed that plastics may never fully biodegrade. They simply break down over time into smaller and smaller pieces.

Tiny plastic particles that measure 5 millimeters or smaller, or about the size of a sesame seed, are called microplastics. Even smaller plastics measuring at a single micrometer — many times smaller than the width of a single human hair — are called nano plastics. These tiny plastics are everywhere. They’ve been found in remote places from the summit of Mount Everest, deep in arctic ice, within the bodies of land and sea animals, and in the lungs, organs, and feces of adults and infants.

In March 2022, research published in Environmental International identified nano plastics in the blood of healthy adults. Further analysis traced the particles to the plastics most commonly used in beverage bottles, food containers, and shopping bags. Some environmental scientists suggest that the average person may be ingesting and inhaling the plastic mass of a credit card every week. And although most of the particles are likely filtered out by the body’s waste systems, microplastics pose a risk to humans physically, chemically, and as a host for other microorganisms to gather and breed.

What happens as these tiny particles deteriorate and move around the world? How will they affect our health and the health of other living creatures? What changes can we make to reuse and repurpose plastics more effectively?

These questions are at the core of emerging fields of study for researchers, including many at Virginia Tech.

Marc Michel, associate professor of geosciences and nanoscience, is exploring ways to equip autonomous underwater vehicles — developed by Dan Stilwell, professor of electrical and computer engineering — with filtration collection devices to secure samples of microplastics from surface waters and at varying depths of the ocean.

Under the sea

For thousands of years, people have used the oceans to move products, for travel, as a source for food and other resources, and for fun activities such as swimming, diving, and surfing.

Unfortunately, the oceans also have become dumping grounds — adversely affecting marine animals and plants. As human reliance on plastics for everything from clothing material to tires continues to increase, some researchers suggest that by 2050 plastic waste will outnumber fish in ocean waters around the globe.

What does that mean for the health of marine life? Do plastic particles contribute to climate change? Are microplastics offering a new transportation system for opportunistic parasites or viruses? How are microplastics affecting the fertility of sea creatures, and what effect does that have on the marine ecosystem?

According to one expert at Virginia Tech, the questions far outnumber the answers in part because scientists’ knowledge about the oceanic environment is limited.

“We have better maps of Mars than the bottom of our own oceans,” said Robert Weiss, director of the Academy of Integrated Science and professor of natural hazards in the College of Science. “But that’s topography on the seafloor. Now imagine how little we know about how conditions are when the water in the ocean is constantly moving. How can we describe a condition in a certain area if it’s constantly changing? If the moment you measure it, it’s gone?”

According to Weiss, to study what’s happening in the underwater world, scientists need to develop tools and refine research methods to adapt to the ocean’s transience. In 2020, Weiss, helped launch the Center for Coastal Studies at Virginia Tech. Part of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, the center coordinates research, teaching, and outreach to ensure a sustainable connection between humans and nature within coastal communities.

“Virginia Tech is uniquely positioned to make a difference,” Weiss said. “Our comprehensive academic and research environment supports collaboration, and addressing oceanic challenges requires a broad swath of expertise.”

To collect the data needed to analyze an environment in constant motion requires tools that move with the water, collecting data as they go. One possible solution: deploying underwater robots.

Autonomous vehicles give researchers a much more dynamic method for measuring environmental conditions with the ability to move through ocean depths and with currents to follow the data. Eventually, the team can then operate those vehicles to collect microplastics concentrations and learn how they’re affected by the ocean conditions in flux around them.

A member of the Virginia Tech community since 2001, Dan Stilwell, professor of electrical engineering in the College of Engineering, is focused on marine robotics and autonomy and the design of advanced autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). He has led or co-led the development of multiple AUV systems, including a general-purpose system that operates up to 500 meters deep.

“We are working to design and build underwater robotic systems — robots that can work in teams to collect data,” said Stilwell, who is also the director of the Virginia Tech Center for Marine Autonomy and Robotics. “By deploying a swarm, or team of robots that use sound for communication, we may be able to follow the movement of a weather system or identify an obstacle or even create a three-dimensional view of the water column.”

But Stilwell admits that the ocean presents some unique challenges — even for robots.

“There is no Wi-Fi, none of the typical communication supports that we take for granted on land,” said Stilwell. “There is no light to allow the robots to ‘see’ where they are going. The amount of information that the robots can communicate is very low due to the nature of the environment.”

Some of the AUVs that Stilwell has helped design and build resemble torpedoes. The robots rely on battery power and can run for about 22 hours before they need to be recharged.

Stilwell’s team takes advantage of Claytor Lake, just 30 minutes southwest of the Blacksburg campus, to test the AUVs in a “true to life” environment.

“Claytor Lake is an excellent testing ground for our AUVs because it’s large enough and deep enough that we can perform meaningful tests,” said Benjamin Biggs, an electrical and computer engineering Ph.D. candidate. “The lake is also close enough to campus that we can come grab what we need in the morning, travel there, test for several hours, and still have time to process data back in the lab if we need to. That allows us to operate far more often than would otherwise be possible.”

According to Marc Michel, associate professor of geosciences and nanoscience in the College of Science, the use of AUVs equipped with effective filtration devices offer as yet untapped potential to study samples of microparticles from surface waters and at varying depths.

“Harvesting the samples from the filter collection devices secured to underwater robotics will allow us to test our hypotheses,” Michel said. “Using this data, we can better understand the types of plastics that are moving within our oceans. We can examine their physical and chemical characteristics. By looking at shapes and sizes we can begin to determine whether they are vectors for contaminants and pathogens.”

Plus, there are applications beyond the oceans, Michel said. “This technology may also offer insights into the treatment and management of surface water reservoirs that communities depend on as water sources.”

According to Michel, learning as much as possible about the microplastics in our soil, water, and air “offers us an opportunity to do better.”

“I am the father of three children who will have to deal with the choices that my generation and the generations before me have made for decades to come,” Michel said. “I feel a responsibility to help inform the changes that they will ultimately implement.”

Weiss agreed. Through the emerging research, he hopes to depict the results of human behavior on the environment, specifically those connected to microplastics in the ocean.

“Let’s say, in the future, we have a sensor that would allow us to determine in situ, very quickly, the concentration of microplastics,” said Weiss. “We can follow the value of concentrations in the ocean, and by the motion of the vehicle, we can determine how these concentrations evolve over time. So that gives us a much more comprehensive and full data set to understand how microplastics move in the ocean. What conditions, like temperature, are they dependent on?

“We need to see how their impact grows. It’s not enough to say, ‘This is how many microplastics are in the ocean and this is the impact on fish and marine mammals,’” Weiss said. “We need to create models that describe what will happen in 50 years if we do this? Or if we do that? Or if we do nothing? We need to instill science as a decision-making tool — while we still have time to make a difference.”

Seale Coastal Zone Observatory

How many microplastics are concentrated in the ocean and what are they made of? How do they move through water? And how will they affect people, wildlife, and the marine environment in the years to come?

At the Seale Coastal Zone Observatory, an initiative in Virginia Tech’s Center for Coastal Studies, an interdisciplinary group of researchers including biologists, veterinary scientists, and engineers are working together to find answers.

The program, led by Weiss, aims to model the effects of microplastics on the marine environment.

“What we want to create is a set of outcomes that help people to make decisions about their behavior, and by people, I mean individuals, governments, and society as a whole,” said Weiss, the center’s director. “Decisions have consequences, and sometimes those consequences are hidden and cascading.”

Some of the research taking place at the Coastal Zone Observatory includes:

  • Recording ocean data, such as temperature and turbidity, using sensor-equipped swarms of underwater robots
  • Studying the effects of ingesting microplastics on fish used for seafood
  • Analyzing microplastics consumption by tilapia and Magellanic penguins in collaboration with biologists from Radford University and Connecticut’s Fairfield University

The Center for Coastal Studies is part of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute.

The new endeavor is possible because of the generosity of Virginia Tech alumni Bill ’86, M.S. ’98  and Carol Seale ’88. Their generous support has enabled Weiss and his team to develop a comprehensive plan to begin ocean monitoring.

“The Coastal Zone Observatory’s work is a critical step forward to help us become better stewards of the world’s oceans, which are arguably our most critical resource on Earth,” said Bill Seale.

In addition to their passion for healthy and sustainable oceans, the Seales are committed to research that advances human health. Their Seale Innovation Fund at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC supports scientific advances in a wide range of areas, including cancer, chronic pain, and brain development.

Jennifer Russell, assistant professor in the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials, is part of a research collaboration with Virginia Tech, Arizona State University, and the Adidas AG corporation to study polyurethane foams. The cushioning agent is used in products like athletic sneakers to provide cushioning and comfort. Polyurethane foams are incredibly difficult to recycle.

Full circle

What will it take to move from a traditional throwaway economy into one where waste is eliminated, resources are circulated, and nature is regenerated?

These are the questions that Jennifer Russell, assistant professor in the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, thinks about every day.

“I believe that figuring out how to live sustainably — in cooperation with others, with nature, and with natural systems — is the hardest and most important challenge that human beings have faced,” said Russell. “I teach in this field because I know humans are capable of being better, and I want to help students to explore the ways in which they can personally contribute to this critical transformation of society.”

Russell, who is also affiliated with the Virginia Tech Global Change Center, works in the area of circular economy, an economic model that aims to reduce or eliminate waste and promote the continuous use of resources, as well as create new economic benefits, such as job creation and cost savings.

By contrast, the industrialized society that supports most humans today operates within a linear economy, also known as a take-make-waste model, in which resources are extracted, used, and then discarded. This model has led to environmental problems, such as pollution and resource depletion, as well as economic inefficiencies.

“By ascribing to the principles of circular economics, businesses and industries can diversify their practices and rethink their business models,” Russell said. “At its core, a circular economy is less transactional, offering businesses and brands opportunities to innovate within their revenue and product-ownership models in ways that allow them to focus on longer-term relationships with clients.”

According to Russell, the automobile industry’s efforts to lease vehicles is an example of how this might work. Consumers lease a vehicle that will serve their needs, then it is returned to a dealer who can make needed repairs and either resell that car or truck or reclaim and repurpose components from the vehicle for future use. Russell believes that model could be replicated for other industries and products like appliances or electronics.

Russell uses computational modeling to demonstrate how efforts to reuse, repair, refurbish, re-manufacture, and recycle can generate economic benefits for businesses and individuals and support the environment. She also incorporates details connected to how human behavior, perceptions of value, and decision-making may affect sustainability outcomes.

Plastic, in the form of polyurethane foam, is at the center of one project that Russell is supporting through a collaboration with Timothy Long, affiliated professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Chemistry and director of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University. It began with a conversation about foam mattresses.

“I was talking with a Virginia Tech alum who worked for a polyurethane foams mattress company,” said Long. “He explained to me that foam mattress production is growing at an enormous rate, and that we recycle none of them. I immediately thought this would be an opportunity to make a difference. Big challenges equal big impacts.”

Polyurethane foam, a cushioning agent, is used in products from office chairs to mattresses and sneakers. But that comfort comes at a cost: the foams — made from petrochemicals with an open cellular structure that holds pockets of air — are incredibly difficult to recycle.

In 2021, the College of Natural Resources and Environment, in collaboration with Arizona State University and the Adidas AG corporation, received a four-year $1.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study polyurethane foams, led by Long.

The Arizona State team is focused on advanced recycling technologies, while the Virginia Tech team, which includes Russell, is mapping the presence and flows of the foams in the U.S. market and engaging with stakeholders to develop viable systems and infrastructure to recover, recycle, and redistribute these materials as part of a circular economy.

The industry partner for the study is Adidas, which has a stake in improving the utilization of polyurethane products that it uses to manufacture athletic gear and apparel.

Working with the largest shoe company in Europe offers the opportunity to affect real-world change, according to Russell.

“The value of having Adidas involved is that they provide a practical example of what a circular economy for polyurethane foams could look like,” Russell said. “This is not an academic exercise. This research will lead to solutions that are designed, from the start, to be integrated into commercial business processes.”

Russell stressed that polyurethane foams, like all plastic materials, have been an important building block for decades of innovation. Better recovery and reuse of such materials means that we can continue to rely on them in the future.

“We need to reframe what we see as waste and what we understand to be valuable,” she said. “Plastics are incredibly valuable, but they can also cause great damage to the environment and human health if we don’t manage them properly. This project is about creating systems and technology that will allow us to continue to utilize these materials responsibly and effectively.”

Hosein Foroutan, assistant professor in the Charles E. Via, Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, received a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development award in 2022 to investigate air-sea interaction as a source of atmospheric microplastics and nano plastics. Photo by Ray Meese for Virginia Tech.

Spitting it back

When beach lovers head to the coast to play in the water, the promise of relaxation far outweighs the risks of jellyfish, riptides, or even the occasional shark sighting.

But there’s a deeper danger hidden in the waves: tiny plastic particles.

These particles, dispersed by the same rhythmic water movement that many find so restorative, may actually contribute to a worrisome human health risk, said Hosein Foroutan, assistant professor in the Charles E. Via, Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

“We’ve long known that a lot of plastic waste reaches the ocean,” said Foroutan. “And many believed that’s where it stayed. But we now understand that over time plastics break up into smaller and smaller particles — particles so small that they could be carried by ocean spray and transported by weather systems to just about anywhere.

“What we’ve dumped into the ocean, the ocean is spitting back.”

Microplastics and nano plastics (MNPs), tiny plastic fragments and fibers, have been found in virtually all ecosystems. According to Foroutan, these plastics can be easily ingested or inhaled by organisms, causing inflammation and damage to cells. They pose a major challenge to environmental management because they are difficult to detect, collect, and recycle.

“Microplastics are one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time,” Foroutan said. “Numerous studies have highlighted the adverse impact of microplastics on human and ecological health, with recent research reporting the presence of microplastics deep in human lungs and in blood.”

The danger of MNPs is compounded by the uncertainty surrounding their origin.

Studies have detected MNPs in atmospheric samples collected in urban, suburban, and even remote areas far from obvious sources. But the question remains: How do they get there?

“There are no geographic boundaries for microplastics,” Foroutan said. “Pollution moves from place to place by various means, including through the atmosphere. This is an emerging issue. There’s a lot we are still discovering about microplastics.”

Foroutan, an affiliated faculty member of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, the Global Change Center, and the Center of Coastal Studies, received a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development award in 2022 to investigate air-sea interaction as a source of atmospheric MNPs.

The project expands on existing research to analyze whether MNPs are aerosolized by oceanic waves breaking and bubble bursting and how the size, shape, age, or material of the MNP particles affects aerosolization.

Foroutan hopes that in addition to assessing human risk, the experiment may shed light on the “missing plastic paradox,” which suggests that despite large amounts of plastic waste being dumped directly into the ocean or flowing toward it via rivers, only a small segment of that plastic is actually found there.

To collect the data needed to answer these questions, the team built an aerosol generation tank to reproduce the action of breaking waves and bubbly sea spray in a small-scale laboratory environment. Using controlled water samples, the scientists will simulate the bubbles and waves that naturally occur in ocean water. Any resulting aerosolized particles will be captured by filters secured in the headspace of the tank.

The scientists will analyze each particle to determine the size, density, and type of plastic. Plastic particles will also be carefully examined with consideration for whether they might be a vector, or carrier, transporting microorganisms from the ocean into the atmosphere.

Foroutan’s team will use the data to develop a process model to estimate the surface flux, or emission, of sea spray MNP aerosols.

“Although the number of particles captured through our small-scale filtration may seem small, when you scale the data up with consideration for an entire ocean or section of an ocean, the exponential change is huge,” said Foroutan. In fact, in a recently published manuscript, they estimated the upper limit of yearly MNP oceanic emission to be 1.66 (0.72-4.13) tons per year.

In addition to this specific research topic, Foroutan leads an interdisciplinary work group at Virginia Tech to bring researchers from across the university together to collaborate about the plastic pollution. The group will coalesce around four primary themes: pollution reduction, health, environment, and policy and outreach.

“By working together, we intend to break down the barriers that sometimes exist between disciplines so that we can tackle this problem systematically,” Foroutan said. “Biologists, engineers, economists, we all have a role to play in finding solutions to plastic pollution.”

Foroutan also is committed to sharing information about plastics with students and families in the community. During the spring semester, the team connected with 60 fifth graders in Pulaski County, Virginia. In addition, his team is developing an educational exhibit at the Science Museum of Western Virginia in Roanoke to illustrate the physics of sea spray aerosols as well as marine and atmospheric microplastics, using a scaled-down version of the tank being used in the project.

Over the summer, the graduate students associated with the project will share plastics information at summer camps at Virginia Tech that are aimed at pre-college students. Through a hands-on, problem-based experiment, campers will use microscope and image processing techniques to characterize airborne plastic particles.

“Looking toward the future, the problems will be different,” said Foroutan. “But by teaching our children and youth what we know now, we can instill a sense of responsibility that will position them to address the next stages in plastic pollution whatever that may be.”

From educating kids visiting the museum to helping environmental scientists who study airborne particles daily, this project has potential benefits for communities the world over.

“Plastics are a significant environmental concern. They impact human, ecological, and environmental health,” said Foroutan. “This project could have a broad impact on human health, and our unique framework hopefully will provide a new way for environmental scientists and engineers to address this growing problem.”

Assistant Professor of biological sciences Austin Gray (at right) is sampling campus waterways to determine if micro plastic pollution from roadways is entering freshwater estuaries. “My students have been sampling water from Stroubles Creek to evaluate the particles from the road dust that moves into the waterway via rain and related events. Experience with more holistic research projects is a pivotal educational opportunity.” Photo by Steven Mackay for Virginia Tech.

Upstream, downstream, and everywhere in between

In a third floor lab in Derring Hall on Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus, Austin Gray and a team of undergraduate and graduate students carefully analyze tiny particles of plastic, some not much larger than a single grain of sand. Gray, assistant professor of biological sciences in the College of Science, hopes these microplastics will help him better understand how the products people use every day may be disrupting ecosystems and affecting animal and human health.

Vintage Star Wars posters line the walls of Gray’s office.

“When we zoom in on these microplastics and begin to think about each tiny particle individually, it feels a lot like exploring an unmapped universe,” Gray said. “Not unlike the plots of those movies I loved growing up.”

Gray, who joined Virginia Tech in 2021, also is a faculty affiliate of the Global Change Center. His research focuses on aquatic ecology and toxicology, specifically investigating the effects of contaminants such as pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and microplastics on aquatic organisms and ecosystems.

“My lab is focused on looking at emerging contaminants, and microplastics specifically are a major group we are interested in because these are found globally in drinking water and surface water of streams, lakes, and rivers,” said Gray. “We know that plastic doesn’t persist intact, but it does break down into smaller and smaller particles. We breathe them in and ingest them as do the wildlife. What we don’t know are the health effects over time. Do they cause physical damage, stress, or inflammation? Do they affect reproduction?”

Gray, who always had an affinity for science, landed a job washing glassware in a lab as an undergrad at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. Through that role, he saw aspects of scientific study that were new to him.

“I fell in love with the field aspect of research,” Gray said. “Science isn’t one- dimensional. Research helps us make connections back to everyday life. And if we can communicate effectively, those connections can inform positive changes.”

Charleston Harbor served as the backdrop for Gray’s early inquiries into aquatic toxicity and pollution, specifically plastic pollution.

“Charleston is a hot spot,” Gray said. “The population density, the tourism, the seafood market, and the shipping industry converge at this single coastal location, offering a nexus for studies to identify changes that may be affecting plant and animal life along with the water itself.”

In 2014, a survey conducted by a team that included Gray concluded that anyone who walked along the shoreline of Charleston Harbor would encounter a piece of plastic every two steps. That experience helped Gray and several collaborators hypothesize about what might be happening in the water. Once Gray began examining samples from the harbor, the results confirmed the theory, dubbed the “sweet tea hypothesis.”

Within the samples, the research team found bits of plastic polymer from tires as well as polypropylene particles and fibers from discarded fishing lines. And then there were the foam particles from discarded cups, likely once filled with that popular Southern staple, sweet tea.

“That’s the thing about research,” Gray said. “Taking steps to answer one question often leads you to five more. And I was anxious to learn more about what happened to these plastics once they landed in the water and how that might ultimately affect the animals that inhabit the harbor.”

Animals like the bottlenose dolphin, an apex predator.

According to Gray, as apex predators, dolphins can give us a good indication of what microplastics are moving up the food chain as they are consumed by bigger and bigger fish. By the time they’re ingested by an animal at the top of the food chain, we may be able to learn how different microplastics are distributed and accumulated once they’ve reached their final consumers.

Currently, alongside collaborators at the Hollings Marine Laboratory, Gray is involved with a five-year dolphin project supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science. Gray and Wayne McFee, head of marine mammal assessments at the center, are leading a team in measuring and identifying microplastics extracted from the gastrointestinal tracts of deceased bottlenose dolphins found stranded in and around Charleston Harbor.

What they found in their initial assessments surprised them.

In 16 dolphins studied in 2022-23, Gray’s team discovered an average of over 1,550 microplastic particles in each of the mammals.

“I was pretty shocked to see levels that high within an organism,” Gray said. “It leads us to start asking more detailed questions: What about these particles is influencing anything we’re seeing in regard to mortality? Are they higher depending on where the dolphin is stranded? Does abundance change throughout different seasons or years? The more data we get, the more we can do to make inferences about what we find.”

Because the study will run over a five-year period, Gray is hopeful that the team’s data will capture change over time in a way that other studies have yet to do. Studies of this kind more often provide shorter snapshots of microplastics, maybe a year at most.

With this long-term data will come a sense of the impact we have on our coasts, Gray hopes.

“If you’re in an area with a lot of microplastic pollution and a lot of discarded waste, then it’s not just going to be impacting you, it’s going to be impacting organisms that live there,” he said. “Their exposure to microplastics is directly influenced by us.”

Additionally, longer studies could reveal how policies on plastic waste and release correspond to microplastics detected in organisms over the time, Gray said. For example, the United States, in 2015, enacted legislation to prohibit the manufacture or sale of products containing microbeads, tiny plastics used as abrasives often found in toothpastes and exfoliating products, which were being detected in water in increasing numbers.

Gray acknowledges that finding effective solutions for managing environmental challenges, like plastic pollution, is no simple task.

“We can’t simply propose a global ban on the use of all plastic or a recycling requirement for individuals, for example,” Gray said. “Potential solutions have to consider factors like economics and industry capacity. Nor can we simply ignore the problems and keep following the same path. Science and society must find ways to connect. That’s part of the appeal of academic spaces like Virginia Tech that encourage collaboration between disciplines. My research might inform a model proposed by an expert in circular economy or offer insights for someone in sustainable packaging.”

Not to mention the opportunity to work with students.

“The campus is a living laboratory,” Gray said. “My students have been sampling water from Stroubles Creek to evaluate the particles from the road dust that moves into the waterway via rain and related events. Experience with more holistic research projects is a pivotal educational opportunity.”

In 2015, as Gray was studying pollution on Charleston beaches, his team found some small black particles they couldn’t immediately identify.

“We learned that these little black particles were actually tire-wear particles,” said Gray. “When you think about tires, they are made of different types of components, meaning they could be butadiene, acrylamide, styrene, and these are all polymers that are used in production of tires that are actually plastics.

“Typically a tire will lose about 30 percent of itself over its lifetime. So that means that these small black particles that are coming off are microplastics that enter different types of waterways, including what we have on campus. Because of their composition, they can absorb various types of contaminants. If these bind to the microplastics, the microplastic itself becomes a vector where, if they’re consumed by organisms, they can transfer these carcinogenic compounds through their tissues or it can cause other types of oxidative stress or mortality within different types of organisms.”

Gray is now sampling campus waterways, like Stroubles Creek, to determine if similar pollution from roadways is entering freshwater estuaries. Tyler Allen, a 2022 graduate who is now pursuing a master’s degree at Virginia Tech, was involved with the sample collection from Stroubles Creek.

“Tires can have the potential to break down and create tire-wear particles that can leach and become toxic to organisms that are present within the streams,” said Allen. “And this can enter streams from the roadways through rain events and could get carried down the stream and ultimately end up in our oceans.”

Allen also is assisting with a project to identify heavy metals and microplastics in drinking water in Richmond.

“With both of these projects, what we are looking for is important for human health, especially for kids,” said Allen. “Our findings may lead to changes in quality standards or preventive measures to protect consumers.”

Gray suggested that one of the least tapped but most integral components of science is connecting with people.

“Part of what I try to pass along to my students is that they need to build awareness around their research. What happens upstream will happen downstream, what we learn from one project informs next steps, not only for science, but for individuals, industries, and even governments.

“Scientists are servants to the world, and as such, we need to constantly be asking, ‘How can we use our findings to meet people where they are and instill the desire to make changes?’”

Zhiwu “Drew” Wang (at left) and Ph.D. student Xueyao “Kira” Zhang are conducting to research to create bioplastics from food waste diverted from landfills. Photo by Max Esterhuizen for Virginia Tech.

About 119 billion pounds of food is wasted in the United States each year, according to statistics released by Feeding America. That equates to 130 billion meals and more than $408 billion in food thrown away annually. In fact, nearly 40 percent of all food in America is wasted.

Food goes to waste at every stage of production and distribution — from the farm to the packhouse, from shippers to manufacturers, and from retailers to consumers. Food waste in homes makes up about 39 percent of the total while commercial food waste makes up about 61 percent of that number.

Food that ends up in landfills accounts for the single largest component of municipal waste in the country. This waste results in greenhouse gas emissions and carries an annual economic loss of approximately $165 billion from the food, water, energy, and chemicals invested in the food supply chain.

Earlier this year, researchers in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences received a $2.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create bioplastics from food waste diverted from landfills. Unlike traditional plastics made from petroleum-based materials, bioplastics are made from biological elements such as plant or animal oils and naturally degrade in compost and waterways.

The three-year grant will test the scalability and feasibility of converting these wastes into bioplastics on a national and global scale while keeping costs for the bioplastics as low as possible.

The project also tackles the environmental challenges resulting from oceanic plastic pollution. According to the World Wildlife Fund, microplastics affect nearly 88 percent of all marine species. Because plastics created from food waste biodegrade quickly in water, they have the potential to reduce adverse effects on marine life across the globe.

The first-of-its kind pilot project will focus on developing a bioprocessing system to produce such biodegradable bioplastics from food waste.

“This pilot project is a watershed moment in the production of plastics,” said Zhiwu “Drew” Wang, the principal investigator, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, and director of the Center for Applied Water Research and Innovation. “We will provide a blueprint of how to mass produce biological plastics.”

Traditional plastics are made from petroleum-based oil. Following a similar principle, bioplastic can be made from biological oil, such as animal fat, plant-based oils, or microbial “fat.”

The researchers employ microorganisms to consume food waste, encouraging them to grow fats, or biological oils. Those fats are then harvested, purified, and processed into bioplastics.

Haibo Huang, associate professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Young Kim, associate professor in packaging systems and design in the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, also are involved with the project.

Huang’s team focuses on the separation and purification of polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), the polymeric fats produced through the fermentation of food waste by the microbial cells.

Kim’s work uses the purified PHAs to manufacture high-value bioplastic products, such as home compostable rigid and flexible packaging systems including bottles, packaging films, and PHA-coated paperboards for single-use packaging products, which are in high demand because of the pandemic.

By Courtney Sakry / David Fleming / Chelsea Seeber / Suzanne Miller / Steven Mackay / Erica Stacy / Suzanne Irby and Max Esterhuizen

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