PITTSBURG, Kan. — A Pittsburg State University student is working diligently to reverse the negativity surrounding plastic items and their harmful impact to the environment.
Simultaneously, her research has propelled her to rarified heights inside the university’s Kanas Polymer Research Center.
And she’s just a sophomore.
“Plastics has always fascinated me,” said Lexington Peterson, a double major in polymer chemistry and plastics engineering technology at PSU. “
A so-called war on plastic straws was initiated this past year by California legislators following a 2017 University of California study showing that 91 percent of the plastic — “billions of tons of plastic” — is not recycled, left instead to clog landfills and oceans.
“You always hear the sea turtle and straw debate,” Peterson said, citing a viral video of a large sea turtle suffering from a plastic straw passing through its nasal cavity and down its throat. “I hear people say, ‘They’re killing our fish.’ It’s not what you think it is. Our plastics professors are always saying: ‘Plastics aren’t bad; it’s poor applications.’”
It’s why the 20-year-old is focused on research that would reverse those previous applications.
“That’s why I’ve fallen in love with the research side of plastics because I want in my future career to work on the sustainability side of plastics, looking at both their biodegradability and renewability.”
Compared with metals or oil, plastics is still a relatively new industry.
“Initially starting out, we weren’t thinking of the impact on the environment; now it’s caught up with us since our oceans and lakes are filled with plastics,” Peterson said. “Now more than ever, research is looking into” ensuring future plastic applications won’t harm the environment. “That really interests me. I really like that.”
“Hopefully,” Peterson continued, “plastics will lose that bad image.”
The LaCygne, Kansas, native serves as a research assistant at the Kansas Polymer Research Center, where she conducts research “alongside some of the brightest minds” in the state to develop applications for bio-based polymers and plastics for foams, molds, films, coatings, etc.
This year, she was tabbed for not one but two national honors: a summer internship continuing her plastics research for two schools, including the University of Maine. She also received a $2,500 scholarship to be a presenter at the national conference of the Society of Plastics Engineers’ in Detroit later this month.
“Part of this (opportunity) is that it allows me to talk from my point of view as a student on the important of biorenewability of plastics and incorporating that into what I want to do with my personal career,” she said. “I’m not really nervous. I enjoy talking, and I’m passionate about (plastics). It comes easy when you really care about it.”
It was a bit of a double-tap to the nervous system, she admitted. Each announcement came to her within a 24-hour period.
“I was so overwhelmed,” Peterson said, laughing. “I almost had a stroke. It’s a dream come true.”
“She has a lot of talent, and it’s really to her credit that she took the ball and ran with it,” said Jeanne Norton, an associate professor with the school’s engineering technology department. “It’s really what I do the job for. ... Seeing her succeed and knowing her effort has paid off — it’s rewarding. It’s the whole reason I do this.”
Norton expects Peterson to eventually move to the forefront of the industry.
“A lot of people assume if you get a degree in plastics, you’ll go out and make milk jugs,” Norton said in a release. “When you add in research in environmentally friendly, biodegradable plastics, it’s an exploding industry. The fact that one of our students is positioning herself to become a leader in this industry is very exciting.”