In Canada, 63 per cent of plastic waste is made up of single-use plastics and packaging.

The majority of this waste ends up in landfills, incinerators or as litter in the environment.

One such plastic called polystyrene, which makes up Styrofoam, is toxic, hard to recycle, and unnecessary.

Although regulations are in place across Canada to encourage both the collection and recycling of Styrofoam, 80 per cent of it ends up in Canada’s landfills and environment.

This is the equivalent of 208 Olympic-sized swimming pools of Styrofoam wasted every year.

Claire Cislak, a recent graduate of Trent University with a Bachelor of Arts and Science (BAS) with minors in chemistry and English, was drawn to recovering waste plastic after learning firsthand how difficult it is to remove Styrofoam beads from the St. Lawrence River.

Claire’s project includes “recovering” used Styrofoam take-out containers to get a clean, workable plastic (polystyrene) to work with (see below image).

Claire made a catalyst for her reaction (Fe/TiO2), and then microwaved the polystyrene with the catalyst and some other reactants (morpholine and formaldehyde) to see if the catalyst would force these reactants to join onto the polystyrene.

Although her research isn’t complete yet, early results indicate that the polystyrene has new structures that match features of the reactants, meaning that the reaction possibly produced “functionalized” polystyrene (see below image).

Claire’s research shows that there is a transformative potential in polystyrene that presents an alternative to common polystyrene-based reactions.

Future research has a new pathway to theoretically make new Styrofoam-like plastics with different properties, such as biodegradability.

Discarded and wasted plastic items can and should be used instead of producing more single-use plastic. Her methodology also shows the effectiveness of greener techniques in chemistry, like microwave-assisted heating.

Thinking about the extent of the world’s plastic problem is overwhelming. However, small steps forward like Claire’s project not only create a knowledge base for further research, but can help educate more people about the harms of plastic waste.

Here is what Claire has to say about her experience at Trent University:

“My journey through Trent University has had many twists and turns. If you had told 1st year me that I would take interest in chemistry, let alone do a chemistry thesis, I would not have believed you. I am eternally grateful to my supervisor, Dr. Shegufa Shetranjiwalla-Merchant, my lab partner, Shaudã Rhoden, and the countless members of Trent University’s Chemistry Department who helped me with my research.”