Some of the most important research on plastics happening right now has a Scouting connection

An image of recycling materials in shape of recycling symbol
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The world has a plastics pollution problem, and one of the more promising solutions is strongly connected to Scouting.

Around a year ago, we told you about the work being done by Travis Williams, an Eagle Scout and Scout leader who’s also a professor of chemistry at USC. Williams and his team have been collecting waste, treating it with a catalyst and creating materials that can be used in pharmaceuticals.

Just last week, a team of USC-led researchers announced the first-ever lab exercise for high school chemistry students to practice the process discovered by Williams’ research. It’s another step in spreading knowledge about this process across the globe, hopefully eventually resulting in less plastic in our oceans.

A local Eagle Scout is a major part of the effort.

Scouts BSA member Aaron Martinez devoted his Eagle Scout project to designing a demonstration that shows how the whole thing works.

“Most Eagle Scout projects involve construction, like building a park bench,” Aaron says in a story posted to the official website of the USC Dornsife Wrigley Institute for Environment and Sustainability. “But I knew from a young age I was interested in chemistry and went to … camp on Catalina Island because they teach chemistry there. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to do something chemistry-related for my Eagle Scout project.”

Plastic recycling in action

Working with USC Ph.D. student Justin Lim, Williams created a demonstration showing members of the public how it’s now possible to recycle certain materials into materials that could prove to be much more useful.

Their demonstration took place at the annual Avalon Harbor Underwater Cleanup, at which more than 600 scuba divers collect trash and debris from Avalon Harbor.

Inspired by their work, Aaron decided to continue the effort:

Martinez worked with Williams and Lim to … show how the monomers created through the original chemical reaction can be reconstituted into a new polymer. He then organized the collection and sorting of more than 138 pounds of trash from Pasadena’s landmark Arroyo Seco in order to obtain raw materials for the demonstration. Finally, he approached his chemistry teacher, Robin Barnes, and obtained her buy-in for her students to complete the demonstration during their lab period. The overall goal was to increase high schoolers’ exposure to polymer science, which in turn can help make them more supportive of recycling programs in their communities.

Dr. Williams collects trash from the shores of Catalina Island. Photo courtesy of USC

Solving problems with science

Click here to read the scientific paper that contains all the details about their work.

“Most students enter college without any exposure to polymer science, which leads to the poor understanding and slow implementation of plastic recycling programs in the United States,” according to the paper’s abstract. “To address the knowledge gap in chemical recycling, we introduce a two-part laboratory experiment that was conducted in multiple high schools and public outreach events to demonstrate the depolymerization of PET via aminolysis and the remanufacturing of cleaved PET fragments into a new aramid polymer.”

Aaron says he’s honored to have seen the plastic recycling process first hand, and looks forward to continuing to find ways to show other young people how science has the potential to solve one of the world’s most pressing pollution-related problems.

“Showing the students that you can not only break down these plastics but also convert them into something else, that’s crucial to helping them understand the importance of recycling,” Williams says.

About Aaron Derr 448 Articles
Aaron Derr is the senior editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines, and also a former Cubmaster and Scouts BSA volunteer.