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SD Mines student looks for a solution to plastic pollution

A student's research board at South Dakota Mines.
A student's research board at South Dakota Mines.(Aleah Burggraff)
Published: Apr. 5, 2022 at 4:58 PM MDT
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RAPID CITY, S.D. (KEVN) - South Dakota Mines hosted their 12th annual Student Research Symposium which gave students the chance to show cutting-edge scientific research.

One project took a look at plastic, a very common material that can be found pretty much everywhere including in the air we breathe and the water we drink.

“So, plastics are a great material. There’s so many unique properties and they’re very ductile, they’re very light, so, very efficient to transport. All these great things about them, but the problem comes from those same properties when we’re trying to dispose of them. There are means like traditional recycling, however, most plastics, even if they are sent to a recycling facility, they’re hard to sort through, a lot of them can’t be recycled and so only about 9% of plastics are even recycled,” explained Briana Hoff, a student at South Dakota Mines researching how to use microbes as a solution for plastic pollution.

Her project works in three stages as she tries to isolate bacteria that show the capability to degrade plastic, understand what reactions are taking place, and then genetically modify the bacteria to make them the most efficient.

“So, the end goal is kind of to take a plastic, put it into a reactor, and get a precursor and a precursor is something you can use to create new plastics,” explained Hoff.

So why is disposing of plastics important?

The negative impact they have on ecosystems.

“So, when plastics are littered or they just get into the environment, they can break down…but they’re not actually chemically breaking down. In most cases, they’re just physically breaking down,” said Hoff.

Meaning the pieces of plastic get smaller and become harder to collect and chemically degrade.

“The environment doesn’t know what to do with plastic and there are a lot of microplastics that we’ve found in different organisms,” said Hoff.

Only 3 months into her research Hoff hopes to discover more and is excited to be a part of a project that could help with pollution

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