The Plastics Dilemma
The introduction of synthetic polymers (plastics) has revolutionized many industries and impacted our daily lives. From lifesaving medical devices and safety equipment to consumer packaging, plastics are ubiquitous. Their low cost, density, and corrosion resistance make them economical and practical materials for nearly every industry. Yet, this ubiquity comes at a price.
The low cost of plastics makes them easily disposable, leading to their single use and disposal, creating vast waste streams. Additionally, with little or no natural decomposition mechanisms, many plastics remain in the environment for hundreds of years. The pervasive use and disposal of different plastics has led to widespread environmental contamination, even to the deepest depths of the ocean.
The materials that enable products from lifesaving devices to toothbrushes also contribute to a growing threat to the health and sustainability of our environment by plastic waste. This is the plastics dilemma.
For more information, please download: A Deep Dive Into the Science: Addressing the Plastics Dilemma Through Access to Space.
Addressing this growing problem requires novel solutions and test environments. Solutions must consider the entirety of the plastic life cycle: from the creation or harvesting of feedstocks to the manufacture plastics through the end of useful product life, disposal, and/or recovery. Ideal solutions would eliminate the need for unsustainable, nonrenewable petrochemical feedstocks and would source carbon from carbon emission waste streams like carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and methane. Further, the end-of-life considerations would necessitate materials design for biodegradability or upcycling of polymers to materials of equal or even greater quality than the original polymer.
The ISS National Lab Sustainability Challenge: Beyond Plastics
The Sustainability Challenge seeks to eliminate plastic waste in the environment and reduce the consumption of water, energy, and petrochemical feedstocks. The objective of the Sustainability Challenge is to use the unique ISS environment to develop, test, or mature products and processes that have potential to:
- Reduce plastic waste introduction into the environment
- Seek alternative feedstocks and pathways for polymer production beyond petrochemicals
- Reduce virgin plastic manufacturing
For the Sustainability Challenge, we are soliciting flight projects that seek to demonstrate applied research and development, technology readiness level (TRL) maturation, and technology demonstration of technology areas that reimagine the design, production, use, and upcycling of polymers. We seek technology projects for which space-based testing can uniquely enable technical solutions to known or new science and engineering challenges and the creation of new products and business opportunities.
The ISS National Lab enables long-term scientific research and technology demonstration within the unique, persistent microgravity environment inside the ISS as well as access to the extreme environment in low Earth orbit. When gravity is no longer a dominant physical force, a multitude of unique effects on physical and biological systems and chemical and biological processes are induced. In some cases, these unique effects may enable the discovery of new capabilities from biological and physical systems that can be leveraged to develop and demonstrate new technologies. Studies may be conducted using facilities within the ISS or external facilities attached to the ISS, including platforms for materials exposure testing.