Microplastics – investigating small contributors to a global waste problem
Her research subject is tiny, her research impact is huge – Dr. Jeanne Hankett manages BASF’s North American Microplastic Research Network and is working with hundreds of research colleagues across the country to gain scientific insight on plastic particles. The senior scientist holds a Bachelor’s in Chemistry from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and earned her Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry at the University of Michigan. Her analytical microplastic laboratory efforts help develop scientific methods to better characterize and understand plastic pollution, one of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges.
You are overseeing BASF’s North American Microplastic Research Network – what does that mean?
I’m serving as the microplastics research liaison for North America, which means that I help organize our research topics for the region and coordinate our internal and external collaborations. We work with various industry groups, such as the American Chemistry Council, as well as with academia and other consortia, and I help ensure that our research efforts in the region are positioned to answer the core questions we have on microplastics. This ultimately helps in addressing questions on plastic pollution and global regulation as well as on innovative ways to develop solutions for plastic waste pollution. My focus is on analytics methodology, quality assurance and quality control. We want to better characterize microplastics in the environment, develop new methodologies to chemically identify and quantify them, and ultimately help support the understanding of microplastics. Most of our research is focused on how to prepare, extract and characterize microplastics, while our findings also support the development of solutions for biodegradable and compostable materials.
Can you give an example of your research?
If you have microplastic in sediment or soil, you can't physically see the particles. You need to remove any biofilm, and you need to remove the inorganic or organic matrix and potentially filter your samples. I’ve worked extensively with other BASF experts for pyrolysis and microscopy on developing extraction and quantitative analysis procedures for microplastics in sediment, as an example. BASF has developed microplastic expertise both in the US and in Europe, and works with numerous partners. When we put the pieces of our work together like a puzzle, we can provide research methodologies from start to finish: This is how you extract the microplastic; this is how you analyze it by weight; this is how you analyze it by count. We provide the scientific community with robust and trustworthy means to isolate and analyze micro- and nanoplastics in these very complex environmental matrices.
What do you love about your job?
My job gives me the opportunity to work with hundreds of people at BASF globally on the topic of microplastics, and really get down to the nitty gritty of the issue. I absolutely love working with these brilliant scientists, with product stewards, regulatory affairs members as well as advocacy members. It's wonderful that we can harness the power of collaboration to universally tackle the topic of microplastics and generate solutions.
And this collaboration is not limited to the BASF world. I really believe in tapping into the strength of academia, especially when we're looking to answer complex questions that are very difficult to solve. There are phenomenally creative professors and students that can help us find novel solutions for these topics or look at sustainability challenges from different perspectives. For example, we worked with third-year engineering Harvard students in 2021 to investigate means to capture and characterize microplastics in wastewater. They came up with some out-of-the-box ideas that we had not even considered. Our university collaborations are fantastic because we can team up with experts in academia to jointly approach these questions.
Will there be a solution for microplastics pollution?
There's certainly hope. Microplastics are typically viewed from a long-term lens, especially in the context of the bigger topic of plastics pollution. This is because the majority of the microplastics located in the environment do not start their life cycle as microplastics. These are known as secondary microplastics, and they originate from larger plastic pieces that are slowly degraded into smaller sizes from environmental stressors. This means that we must think about the role plastic pollution plays in generating microplastics over the course of decades, or even hundreds of years down the road. Microplastics science has evolved rapidly over the last couple of years, and we have developed various solutions to better identify, evaluate, and tackle pollution. Robust analytics help us build the foundational picture on microplastics exposure and support future polymeric circular economy solutions.
How will such a complex problem be solved?
I think the most important answer for microplastics pollution will be preventing the release of plastic waste to the environment in the first place. There is no one solution to prevent plastic waste, so we need to develop and enhance multiple circular economy strategies. For instance, we have developed ways for plastic and solid polymeric materials to be recycled either mechanically, chemically, or organically. At BASF, our Chemcycling™ program can turn waste plastics into valuable resources such as naphtha or other oil fractions to convert into new products. Imagining what impact we as a society could make with chemical recycling in the future is quite exciting! Complementing this with enhanced mechanical recycling, we can increase the number of times that materials are recycled, increase the length of time plastic products are used and, ultimately, reduce the demand for new plastic production.
Lastly, we have solutions through inherently biodegradable materials in managed end-of-life environments, including organics recycling processes. Certified soil biodegradable technologies can be used in specific applications where loss to the environment cannot be prevented during a product’s intended use like agricultural mulch films. Organics recycling recovers valuable nutrients for the soil and complements mechanical and chemical recycling. Certified compostable products can be used in place of conventional products associated with food waste that would have otherwise created microplastics as a contaminant in compost, as an example.
These are the types of solutions that will drastically help solve plastic and microplastics pollution – and I’m proud that our regional research is essential in building the scientific base for the development of these solutions.