ACS Green Chemistry Institute®

Stepping Stones: Building a Career as a Sustainable Scientist

Blog Post created by ACS Green Chemistry Institute® on Nov 18, 2020

By Dr. Love-Ese Chile, Founder and Technical Director, Regenerative Waste Labs

 

Since the industrial revolution, scientists have been innovating at a faster rate than ever before. These scientific discoveries and disruptions have been miracles for some, bringing wealth and prosperity. For others, they have been destructive, leading to environmental devastation and social inequality. As a young person, I developed a fascination and a passion for science but also recognized that the technological advancement that science brings is a double-edged sword. As I work towards constructing my career as a sustainable scientist, I seek out experiences that will ensure my knowledge will make a positive impact on our environment and communities.

 

 

 

 

Laying the Groundwork

 

For me, graduate school was spent diligently studying the synthesis and characterization of lignin-polylactide composites while also exploring the history of academic science and its roots in gender and race inequality. It soon became clear to me that in order to create an equitable, well-distributed, and regenerative society, sustainable science and green chemistry would need to take a leading role.

 

Primed and ready to integrate green chemistry into my research, I sought to engage with my peers, only to find there was not a strong sense of sustainability within my chemistry department. To challenge my colleagues and encourage collective learning, I started a Green Chemistry student group. The group was designed to support graduates and faculty in creating more sustainable labs by encouraging researchers to think carefully about solvent selections, waste management, energy consumption, and water use. The students also had opportunities to engage with members of the broader non-academic community to showcase the innovative green research that they were developing.

 

As I started to share these new ideas with people outside my discipline and outside academia, I quickly realized how inaccessible science is to people not part of this community. Seeking ways to create more connections between science and external communities, I organized a Science and Society Book Club, which encouraged graduate students to read science fiction then discuss how these books had shaped the views of society and the impact they had on the work of future scientists. Like the chicken and the egg, the group often wondered which came first, the idea or the innovation? If ideas can shape the world through the imaginations of scientists, authors, and artists, can we begin to imagine green futures fuelled by sustainable science? I left graduate school privileged with knowledge and expertise, and I was determined to use these powers for good by placing them in the context of broader society.

 

But first, rest.

 

Kids, Cups, and Chemistry

 

After my graduate school experience, I was exhausted. To recharge I needed to do anything but scientific research, but for the sake of my CV, I decided to keep one foot in something tangentially related. Fresh out of graduate school I worked two jobs; I was a barista at a bustling local coffee shop, and I dressed up as a Mad Scientist doing science experiments for kids’ birthday parties and after-school programs.

 

As a Mad Scientist, rather than just teaching kids about science, I showed them how wonderful, miraculous, and weird the world could be. Our experiments ranged from color changes and mini explosions, to goo and spring-powered toys. We made fruit-based paints, biodiesel, plastic from milk and so much more! I saw young eyes light up to what looked like magic but was explainable by science. I saw them consider possibilities they had never thought possible. I wanted to spark in adults the same energy and creativity of children learning new ideas and having joyful experiences.

 

During my time as a barista, I learned three key things: the thermodynamics of milk, how to make latte art, and the unfathomable amount of waste that is generated on a daily basis. A pivotal moment occurred when I realized I was unboxing new coffee cups, stacking them to give them out one by one, only to later remove the same stacks of the same cups from the garbage at the end of the day. Every shift I would encourage people to use the washable ceramic mugs, but few people would want them.

 

That is when I found myself thinking more deeply about waste management, single-use items, and the circular economy. I questioned why we spend so much time and energy to extract raw materials from the earth, processing them into products that are used once and then discarded in a landfill. It became apparent that the linear economy was vastly lacking; I began to imagine green futures where the value of our waste would be returned through a regenerative cycle.

 

With much motivation, I left the coffee shop to pursue a career as a Sustainable Plastics Consultant. It was my goal to support businesses and innovators in using bio-based and biodegradable materials and ensure that the items we use every day do not end up contaminating our environments.

 

But where to begin?

 

Scientist for Hire

 

New to the field of consulting, I first focused on networking and building a reputation as an expert in the field. I acquired a wealth of knowledge during graduate school and I wanted to share that with the people around me so they could start imagining green futures too. I delivered several well-attended public lectures on the challenges with conventional plastics and how compostable and bio-based materials may be able to solve some of these issues. Soon after, word spread, and I was invited to do a series of radio interviews. Environmental and community groups were excited to hear about these new innovations and the potential they had in reducing the negative impacts of plastic use. 

 

I continued to develop the strengths and skills I had acquired during graduate school by accessing research, analyzing the science, and disseminating meaningful results and information. I wrote and performed slam poems about plastic waste, I authored a series of whitepapers, and I gave presentations for local and regional policymakers. Before long, I secured my first contract to design a research program focused on the development of new waste management technologies that would accelerate the biodegradation of compostable plastics.

 

Each opportunity led to the next and I quickly became well-known as an accessible expert in my field. People who heard me on the radio or saw one of my presentations started reaching out to me. I was asked to participate in a stakeholder engagement project for a local circular economy non-profit organization. This project focused on exploring how to enable the use and recovery of compostable plastics in Canada.

 

My network continued to funnel people with questions about biomaterials to me. Soon I had projects from companies who wanted information on the Canadian marketplace for compostable plastics, the sustainability considerations for bio-based plastics, and the landscape for waste management infrastructure for compostable plastics. My services were in high demand and with every new project I learned more and more about the challenges and opportunities in building a circular economy for biomaterials.

 

The more I read and talked to stakeholders, the more I realized that imagining green futures is one thing but constructing them is much more complicated.

 

Entrepreneurship to Enable the Circular Economy

 

Transitioning from a linear economy to a circular economy is not easy. All participants in the supply chain need to use systems thinking to assess how decisions made in one sector impact the work of businesses both upstream and downstream to them. Stakeholders who would not usually interact with each other need to develop strong communication channels and a culture shift is required so that businesses not only look out for the good of their own company, but also the good of the entire system.

 

Let’s look at the challenges that face the compostable plastics industry as an example. These products were designed to be made from renewable resources and to go into centralized compost facilities at the end of their use. To be sure of the sustainability and circularity of these products, a company must consider the beginning-of-life issues such as feedstock sustainability. Some feedstocks come from monoculture farming which has both environmental and societal impacts. Alternative feedstocks may come from waste biomass, however, using this “waste” may remove important nutrients from ecological cycles. End-of-life considerations also have to be explored: How quickly will the product degrade in composting facilities? Is there access to composting facilities and waste management infrastructure in the areas you are selling into? And does the resulting compost have toxic effects on soil and plants? Without broad collaboration and cooperation of farmers, resin producers, product manufacturers, brand owners, consumers, waste collectors, compost operators and policymakers, this circular system is not complete. In the early days of the industry, stakeholders did not seek inclusive and diverse participation during decision making and now this value chain is misaligned, and compostable plastics are not circulating properly. Missed opportunities and waning public support are currently plaguing the industry.

 

Though the compostable plastics industry and the biomaterials industry as a whole face many challenges, I see so many opportunities for sustainable innovation. With imagination, creativity, and hard work, we can craft new jobs and businesses to fill the gaps in the value chains and continue building green futures where biobased plastics and other materials play a pivotal role.

 

Armed with two years of consulting expertise in compostable plastics and with the backing of mentors and business partners, in January 2020 I incorporated my testing and research company, Regenerative Waste Labs.

 

At Regenerative Waste Labs, we work to turn ‘waste’ into a dirty word. We provide contract research and testing to support the development of truly sustainable biobased products. I am now in a position where I wear all the hats I acquired along my career pathway: business owner, salesperson, researcher, educator, and connector. I am grateful to be able to do what I love  ̶ running a green science lab that practices sustainable, safe, and benign science, engaging with voices that have a diversity of experiences, and working directly to co-create a sustainable and equitable future. The work to build the dream is not over, but with persistence and ingenuity, it can come true.

 

I hope my story inspires you to imagine where a green future might take you and shows you that it is possible to forge your own pathway to get there.

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