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.”
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.
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