Plastic Man defends his honour

We don’t trust plastics. Indeed, the word itself has become a metaphor for anything cheap, disposable, or inauthentic. Dr. Michael Shaver has decided to change your mind. If all goes according to plan, he may even dispel a few misconceptions you have about chemists, too.

Shaver, an assistant professor of Chemistry at UPEI, is the featured researcher at the next Research on Tap on Tuesday, March 9, at 7 p.m. in Mavor’s Bar in the Confederation Centre of the Arts. His title: Good Plastics: why chemists have a bad name and what we’re doing about it.

“There are some bad plastics out there,” admits Shaver. “But we tend to assume the negative when we think of plastics, and ignore the positive. Plastics can be considered to be good for the environment.”

Shaver points to plastic’s strength and relatively light weight. If we were to discard plastic as a building material, we’d have to replace it with other materials, such as metal, wood, and brick—comparatively heavy objects that require more energy to move around.

“The car is the perfect example of good plastic,” says Shaver. “The simplest reason why cars today have better mileage than cars of the past isn’t due to some great leap forward in the technology behind the internal-combustion engine. It’s that the cars are lighter. They’re lighter, because they’re made of plastic.”

Shaver says the next step is to choose better plastics: ones that are better for us, and the environment. His lab is developing biodegradable, plant-based polymers to replace conventional plastics. One of the many challenges is that no one plastic is appropriate for every usage.

“You wouldn’t use the same plastic in a biodegradable compost bag as you would in, say, a deck chair,” says Shaver. “Unless you want the chair to fall apart in six months.”

Being able to create plastic with a built-in expiry date also increases its value in health-care settings. If the polymer can be infused with a drug, a single dose could be set to release small amounts over a set period of time. It’s one of many possible applications for Shaver’s “green” plastic.

Shaver’s second challenge at Research on Tap is to defend the honour of his chosen profession.

“Chemists take their name from ‘alchemy,’ so we’re partially to blame,” says Shaver. “People consider chemistry to be a mysterious black art. But we’re working to change that image.”

For more details on Shaver’s Research on Tap, visit this site

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