The fight for a plastic-free future
20 September 2021 at 6:13 pm
University of Queensland researcher Nasim Amaralian is fighting for a more sustainable and healthy world by turning unlikely natural resources like spinifex and sugar cane into everyday products. She’s this week’s Changemaker.
Despite the arid, spiky grass covering 30 per cent of the continent and being used by First Nations people for thousands of years, some of spinifex’ many uses are only just being discovered.
When nanotechnologist and sustainability engineer Nasim Amaralian started looking into the grass for her PhD, she discovered that a very thin and long fibre can be extracted from this arid grass, which has really unique properties.
When added to polymers, the fibres brought added strength and toughness to products that would traditionally use latex, such as condoms, plastic gloves, and medical face masks.
This put her on a path to researching more sustainable materials with the ultimate goal of reducing plastic pollution.
Her and her team’s latest research endeavor is inventing single-use packaging materials from sugar cane waste, which is a green, biodegradable and compostable alternative to harmful plastic products that clog up landfill and oceans.
The current aim is to use this eco-friendly alternative to produce medical resources such as plastic gloves and facemasks, which for hygiene reasons are disposed of at an enormous rate.
During COVID, the consumption of face masks and single use gloves has been particularly massive, with around 130 billion facemasks used every month during the pandemic.
Amaralian is also a passionate advocate and mentor for young women wanting to pursue STEM work, and was named as one of the AMP Foundation’s Tomorrowmakers.
In this week’s Changemaker, she talks about the impact of her research, her hope for the future, and why it’s important to follow your dreams.
You’re a researcher with Queensland University, how did you first get involved in the world of sustainability?
I started my PhD on the scientific use for spinifex grass, which covers 30 per cent of the continent. Indigenous people have been using the grass for a very long time, but we didn’t know the scientific property of this grass. I discovered that a very thin and long fibre can be extracted from this arid grass, which has really unique properties. We don’t need to use very harsh chemicals or mechanical energy to actually extract these nanofibers from the grass. The reason behind that is because the grass grows in desert environments, where it’s very hot and dry. These nanofibers are very strong, and can be used for a range of different applications. It’s also a resource that is abundant, sustainable, and biodegradable. We know that there is a huge need for the development of more sustainable materials, which has led to my group work on making sustainable medical textiles.
And what are some of the big changes you are trying to make to the world through your research?
We are trying to reduce plastic pollution and plastic waste. For instance, if we look at the medical textiles industry, specifically during COVID, the consumption of face masks and single use gloves has been huge. Globally, around 130 billion facemasks have been used every month during the COVID pandemic, and unfortunately, 75 per cent of this plastic just ends up in landfill and in the ocean. When it comes to packaging, 32 per cent of the 80 million tons of plastic packaging that is produced annually ends up in the ocean and environment, which is the equivalent of putting one garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute. At this rate it is set to increase to two to three loads of plastic garbage per minute by 2030, and then four per minute by 2050.
What does an average day look like as a university researcher?
A lot of my time is spent on expanding my research and having scientific conversations with my team. I’m also very involved in providing cultural support to my students. My team and I are very passionate about promoting science and especially encouraging women into STEM. Looking after the mental health of students and staff has also been a big priority during COVID, so ensuring they are okay and checking in on them is a big part of my job too.
You’re trying to find solutions to really big challenges. How do you manage such a big task and not become overwhelmed?
To be honest, it’s not an easy task because in an academic job, you need to have a balance in the different aspects of your work. I teach, I do research, and then I also have to promote that research. Having a good team is really helpful, and I’m really fortunate to have great people working with me to help plan and carry out all the things that we do. We are all very supportive of each other to move toward this desire of getting rid of plastic waste. It takes time and it’s not easy, but with the support from each other, it’s definitely doable.
What are some of the things that you love most about your job?
My job is not boring because I am always working on different things and I am continuously learning. I also love to inspire people to do what inspires them. Being at a university gives me the opportunity to do that on a daily basis.
Do you have any advice for young people wanting to make a change in the world right now?
Believe in yourself and don’t give up. If you’ve got a dream, just go and get it. There are always people around us that can support us to achieve our dreams.