Plastics Or People? At Least One of Them Has to Change to Clean Up Our Mess

by on August 1, 2019 · 0 comments

in Ocean Beach, San Diego

Algae oil

UCSD Chemist on Mission to Make Flip-Flops Out of Algae

By Christopher Joyce / NPR-wbur / July 30, 2019

The avalanche of plastic waste that’s rolling over land and sea has inspired numerous potential solutions. Some involve inventing our way out of the mess by creating new kinds of natural materials that will harmlessly degrade if they’re thrown away.

Others say it might be quicker to change people’s throwaway behavior instead.

Among the first group is Stephen Mayfield. He’s a chemist who figured out how to turn various kinds of algae into raw plastic — polyurethane plastic. Then he turns it into stuff people want.

“What are the most important polyurethane products on the planet?” he asks. “Well, if you are from UC San Diego, they’re surfboards.”

Stephen Mayfield. All photos from arctic algae.

Mayfield is a lifelong surfer whose lab in San Diego is walking distance from the beach. He works out of what looks like a machine shop on the University of California campus. His surfboards got him some attention (the mayor of San Diego has one), but that’s not what he really wants to make.

It was a surfing trip to the Maldives islands in the Indian Ocean that persuaded him to focus on something else. One day, he asked his local hosts to take him to their most remote island. “And when I got to the windward side of the island, it was covered with dead flip-flops,” Mayfield recalls.

Flip-flops are the footwear for much of the world’s population. They’re made by the billions every year, mostly from various forms of rubber or plastic. The pile Mayfield saw in the Maldives had floated there on ocean currents from, presumably, all over the world. “And it was so sad to get there and think this is really … what we’ve done to the planet?” he says ruefully.

So Mayfield now makes flip-flops from algae grown in tanks. What makes them special is that they degrade if left out in the environment. Replacing flip-flops is a personal mission, says chemist and fellow surfer Suri Sherman, who is the “polyurethane chef” in Mayfield’s lab. “I’ve traveled all over the world just to surf,” he says, “and I have family in India, so I’ve been out there a bunch of times. Everywhere you go there is trash all over the place, and a lot of it is flip-flops.”

Surfboard made from algae oil.

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