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28 March 2022 2 min read

Our purpose as Australia's national science agency is to solve the greatest challenges through innovative science and technology. One such challenge is ending plastic waste.

In 2022, eight million tonnes of plastic waste will flow from the world’s rivers into the ocean. This is from both land and sea sources. Then there's the estimated 14 million tonnes of microplastics that has already accumulated on the seafloor. Our oceans teem with plastic, threatening our marine life.

To combat this challenge, we've launched our Ending Plastic Waste Mission. And Deborah Lau is our Mission Lead. So let's meet her.

©  Nick Pitsas

Problematic plastic

As a child Deborah said she wanted to be an astronaut but somehow ended up studying applied biology and chemistry. That led her to working in the field of conservation science. Deborah said she has always been fascinated by the natural world.

"I found working in nature amazing but I was devastated to see the impact plastic was having. It was a situation that needed to be addressed urgently," she said.

"My biology study helped me understand systems and the connectivity of not just ecosystems but our actions. I knew holistic change was need to tackle the plastic problem."

The Ending Plastic Waste Mission has a big goal. We're aiming for an 80 per cent reduction in plastic waste entering the Australian environment by 2030. Deborah is optimistic that we can achieve this target.

She said to achieve our ambitious goal we all need to change how we use and how we think about plastic.

“We need to treat plastic like a resource and a commodity, rather than as waste,” Deborah said.

“From a Mission perspective, we’re tackling the issue head-on with a range of science and technology solutions around the entire plastics supply chain."

Working together to get the job done

Deborah said single-solution strategies alone can't stop plastic pollution.

"Through this Mission, we're enhancing our collaborations and partnerships. We're working on technology development and scientific information to support decision making to change the way we make, use, recycle and dispose of plastics," Deborah said.

"For example, in partnership with Murdoch University we'll launch the Bioplastics Innovation Hub. The hub will focus on developing 100 per cent compostable bio-derived packaging for bottles, caps and wrappers. These will be able to breakdown in compost, land or in water, without leaving a trace.

"The focus on those single-use items like food packaging is important as it's the largest contributor to plastic waste."

The personal is professional

Deborah said we all have a personal role to play in stopping plastic at the source: before it leaves our hands.

“Our everyday decisions can help us reduce waste, and reduce impacts to our oceans,” she said.

"For me, it's taking re-usable produce bags to the market and choosing plastic-free packaging wherever possible. I also keep cutlery in my bag so I don’t need to use the disposable single-use plastic kind."

Deborah recently represented us at the World Plastics Summit Monaco 2022. She spoke to the theme of this inaugural summit: Fostering global collaboration to accelerate plastics recycling and redesign. Deborah and fellow international research leaders will continue to work to globally connect research and innovation to tackle the problem of plastic waste.

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