Professor Richard Banati

30 April 2014 — Groundbreaking research by Professor Richard Banati has shown that plastics are entering into living beings on the molecular level, which he says has implications for how we use and dispose of these ubiquitous materials.

Working at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, Professor Banati refined a technique called the tracer principle, which involves using slightly radioactive tracers to study and track materials at the molecular level. The Australian instruments his research at ANTSO use are sensitive enough detect a glass of wine diluted in a volume of water the size of Sydney Harbour.

While his early research focused on neuroscience applications, Professor Banati saw that the principle could be applied to measure the ratio of naturally occurring isotopes (isotopic signatures) to see how they travel through the environment in water, soil and food.

Research based on these techniques, carried out in collaboration with Dr Jennifer Laver from Monash University, examined the feathers of seabirds, confirming the presence of plastics and chemicals.

It had been known that the stomachs of seabirds contained up to 10 per cent plastic, broken down into finger-nail sized pieces, but new findings raised the possibility that toxic contaminants, including elements from the plastics, were being transferred into the body and remaining in body tissues. Dr Banati’s research confirmed this is indeed the case.

In a presentation at TEDxSydney 2014 on the Anzac Day weekend, Professor Banati explained how the degradation process of plastic waste in our oceans made them potentially more hazardous than had previously been thought.

He said the process of breakdown is made more complex by the fact that plastics, many of which have been recycled already, are a mix of many components; and during the process of degrading, plastics, including biodegradable plastics, break down into smaller and smaller pieces, meaning their surface area increases dramatically.

Greater surface area means greater interaction with the environment, which means degraded plastics both release more toxins such as cadmium and mercury into the environment, and attract and absorb more.

What this all means is it might be time to take a good hard look at single-use plastics, how they are disposed of, and what kind of legacy they create.

“A traditional approach to environment management has been ‘the solution to pollution is dilution’, however researchers are becoming concerned about this approach,” Professor Banati said.

“Specifically we are finding that mass plastic consumption, together with increased degradability of plastics, may actually lead to a steady increase of hazardous contaminants in the environment which would be difficult to reverse.

“Plastics are a great invention, they are ubiquitous in our lives and they are likely to have an even more important place in our future world – they are the pottery of our age.

“The issue is that plastic waste may just not be as benign as the Greek amphorae that litter the floor of the Mediterranean Sea.

“We need to be mindful that remnants of seemingly ‘single use’ items often stay in eco-systems for a very long time and do not simply disappear, but continue to move through the environment, and the plants and animals therein.”

Professor Banati’s research, by showing that the lifecycle of plastics extends well beyond visible waste, raises some serious questions.

“Should we be further emphasising use of quality, reusable products? Are industry standards for biodegradable plastics appropriate? Should we find a way of further incentivising plastic collection?” Professor Banati asked.

“These are interesting questions and, if anything, what research at the atomic scale shows is that they are at least worth putting out there and discussing.”