Sally James

Seattle Science Writer

Blog post

Theater of the polymers

How much science could our audience absorb from 10 experts with only 6 minutes each? That was the experiment in science communication that played out at the Neptune Theater, a run-down but beloved ex-movie-house near the University of Washington campus in Seattle.

More than 100 people showed up to hear “Short Takes on Plastic” in February as part of a partnership between the Burke Museum and Seattle Theater Group, related to the exhibit Plastics Unwrapped at the Burke. The experiment is about bringing research out into the community in new ways.

During the rapid-fire presentations – we heard about the project to build composting latrines out of water bottles (via melting) and then re-form them using 3D printers. “Think of it (printer) as a computer controlled hot glue gun,” said Matt Rogge, the ex-Peace Corp volunteer who dreamed up the bottles-into-latrines model that somehow reminds one of weapons-into-plowshares.

We heard about Agilyx, a Portland, OR, company that is turning 10 tons of plastic every day into oil. Yes, crude oil. (Plastic comes from oil in the first place, frequently.)

Kim Holmes, another Portland expert, explained that designing for the environment in the first place might reduce how much plastic we use and therefore how much we have to recycle or transform.

Other experts explained the pre-plastic lives of Victorians, and the sans-plastic life that a Burke staffer attempted for one month. “I carried a lot of glass jars around with me in my backpack,” explained Samantha Porter.

Chemical engineer AJ Boydston spends much of his research time trying to create “better” plastics that will biodegrade and will not persist in the environment for 450 years.

Ironically, for a communication experiment audience, it turns out that communication is a key ingredient in recycling. Jack Johnson said people on campus can’t seem to distinguish between the coffee-cup lids that are compostable and those that are recyclable. Johnson helped create a Garbology project on campus, where student volunteers sort and catalog campus garbage.

UW sends the mass equivalent of 667 elephants to the landfill every year. If the lid confusion were fixed, some of those metaphorical elephants could be saved. When an archive becomes available for Short Takes, we will post it here.

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