During September we had the great pleasure sharing our knowledge and enthusiasm with a group of local middle school students at Vikingaskolan in Lund. It was a very rewarding experience full of interesting discussions on how best to minimize plastic pollution and how to incorporate an ecoconscious attitude in everyday life. Their creativity and willingness to go the extra mile to protect the environment left us feeling more inspired and motivated than ever.
We focused the discussions around concepts that we knew had already been brought up by the teachers prior to the lecture to make sure that the level of the material was suitable. With the help of more approachable analogies we communicated important concepts related to microplastics and microplastic pollution; from where the problem stems, the adverse environmental effects and current research on how to combat their dispersion. Each topic was then discussed in smaller groups where the students got the opportunity to discuss their perspective on the topic and to jointly come up with suggestions on how they could aid in reducing the plastic pollution. Some of ideas that were brought forward by students were:
- Avoiding synthetic textiles
- Reusing plastic bags when grocery shopping
- Collecting big plastic fragments with boats and recycling them
- Discussing the adverse effect of plastic pollution with friends and family
- Buying glass bottles instead of PET bottles.
- Increasing the washing machine loads and using synthetic clothes more than once before washing.
- Introducing tax on plastic products
During the discussions we were careful not to control the way to which the students arrived at their conclusions, but simply encouraging them to think freely and outside the box, daring them to trust themselves and their own instincts. We felt that this was the best approach to showing them that they themselves were more than capable of coming up with excellent strategies to facilitate environmental sustainability, with the hopes of changing the mindset of it simply being a chore to a personal lifestyle choice.
Through our project we learned that the abundance of microplastics can be mitigated through a simple change in attitude toward plastic consumption among the general public. Thus, we found the exchange with the younger generation to be a very important step in our conviction of communicating the importance of ecoconsciousness. Future societal change will be dictated by the youth and by encouraging them to rally behind the enviroment, great strides can be made in ensuring the future well being of our planet.
Recalling our passion and interest in science during high school and our ability to discuss it at length with just about anyone (much to the dismay of our parents we’re sure), we reached out to ProCivitas Privata Gymnasium to host a lecture on the importance of environmental sustainability and microplastic pollution in hopes that our message would trickle down to their friends and family. Additionally, in hopes of inspiring the students to pursue higher education, we discussed our life as university students, the iGEM competition and science research.
Being the first team to be blessed to represent Lund University in the iGEM competition, we feel a great responsibility to share the story of our journey to show that there are opportunities for students to actively contribute to science. ProCivitas, as a high school well known for nurturing an early passion for science by allowing students to design and conduct their own experiments, was the perfect channel for this endeavour. We scheduled to give the the lecture just before ProCivitas’ allocated time for the student projects, with the intent of encouraging them to pursue projects related to sustainability.
A considerable part of the lecture was dedicated to discussing how we set out to realize our biosensor both in terms of the underlying hypothesis and through the discussions with experts on microplastics. Our belief was that presenting our systematic strategy would alleviate some of the uncertainty regarding the plausibility of their ideas and instead allow them to more freely brainstorm possible projects. Much to our excitement, it had the intended effect and we received a slew of ideas, questions and thoughts from the students both throughout the lecture and afterwards. We wrote down some of the questions that were posed:
- “We would like to work with antibiotics during our project-period, we don’t really know how, but do you have any suggestions how we could implement synthetic biology?”
- “Could you tell me more about the abstraction theory behind the biobrick? I thought it was very interesting in how the genetic information was re-packaged.”
- “We like the environmental thinking behind your idea, are there any other environmental problems that you’ve heard of that we potentially could look into?”
- “Who can participate in iGEM?”
Overall, the lecture was a great success. Both the teachers and the students expressed their gratitude and we had several students that expressed excitement over the prospects of pursuing degrees in bio-engineering.
We completed the goals that we had set out to achieve for public education by co-hosting a seminar with the iGEM Chalmers Gothenburg team. The seminar was held as part of a series of public talks held by faculty members of Lund University across all disciplines in celebration of its 350th anniversary. Our ambition was to provide the public with a greater perspective on the surge in interest in synthetic biology within the bio-engineering community and its potential ethical and societal implications. The lecture was constructed from a perspective of good science communications, based, by and large, on professional workshops and research exploring different aspects of effective rhetoric and its relation to public opinion on GMO   . To summarize our literature study, we found that knowledge and opinion of genetic modification varies with socioeconomic factors and that there exists some tendency of confirmation bias. Furthermore, some distrust in the integrity and honesty of scientists presenting the various safety aspects of GMO has been noted. To account for this, the material we introduced was kept at a popular scientific level to reach the widest audience possible. The ethical dilemmas that were brought up were scrutinized and discussed through different social lenses prior to the seminar in an attempt to present them in a perceived unbiased manner. As our intention was to inspire the public to discuss and delve further into synthetic biology and its implications rather than present them with a set of facts, this was a key component of our seminar design.
Synthetic biology rests on the shoulders of genetic engineering and, consequently, on molecular biology and genetics. In an attempt of minimizing the perceived abstraction of the subject area, we constructed the seminar to systematically work through the key moments in history that ultimately enabled it.
After briefly touching upon the classic breakthroughs in molecular biology, such as the discovery of Mendelian inheritance, the Central Dogma of molecular biology and the impact of the successful characterization of ligase and restriction enzymes. After this, we introduced the concept of synthetic biology as the engineering approach to biology through the application of standardization, automation and hierarchical abstraction. This was further elucidated by both teams elaborating on their chosen project and their respective design process.
Potential future applications, ethical considerations, such as that of GMO crops, synthetic organisms and human enhancement, and the responsibility of scientists to communicate their findings in an unbiased and effective manner was broached to give a more holistic view of the discipline. We strongly question the idea that all ethical questions in synthetic biology can be answered by applying the classic normative ethics schemes such as those of deontology or teleology. Thus, we encouraged the listeners to form their own opinion by presenting them with a multitude of different approaches to ethical analysis.
At pre-allocated times during the seminar, the floor was open for discussions. Many listeners approached us to discuss their angles in regards to the discussed topics. A general trend in the exchanges was a prevailing worry of ecosystem disturbance as a result of GMO crops and the use of synthetic biology to produce bioweaponry. To our surprise, the idea of unnaturalness was not a topic that people seemed terribly invested in, which caused us to review our previous conclusion - based on available literature - as to what the public would find troublesome. Thus, it helped us improve our strategy of communicating our project to society by guiding us to what aspects were perceived as more important to elaborate on.
We want to thank iGEM Chalmers Gothenburg for investing a lot of time and effort into making sure that the seminar was the best it could be.
Throughout the year, we have evaluated different strategies on how to raise awareness on the continuously growing microplastic problem. While connecting with the public through news media and by hosting lectures enabled us to have a personal dialogue with our local community, we realized that to facilitate change on a larger scale we had to collaborate with an established ecoconscious organization with international ties.
As a world leading enterprise promoting environmental sustainability through a socio-economic conscious perspective, IKEA has made impressive strides toward redefining corporate social responsibility for the modern world. With the implementation of IWAY, the IKEA way of purchasing products, materials and services, IKEA has set a new standard for good business ethics in multinational corporations. Among the things that have been incorporated into the business model are the use of completely renewable or recycled materials, environmentally focused streamlining of their supply-chain and product development and promotion of social equality and fair wages, with a constant search for opportunities to expand their efforts .
With this in mind, we contacted and met with their sustainability department to discuss IKEAs proactive and reactive strategies of combating microplastic pollution, in particular with regards to their use of synthetic textiles in their product lines. As it turns out, they were keenly aware of the issues of microplastic shedding from washing synthetic textiles and were looking into potential solutions. This provided us with the opportunity of accomplishing what we set out to do - collaborating with an established organization that had the resources to radically improve the currently unsustainable situation. We conducted a market scan on different technologies that IKEA could implement in various stages of their product design that would decrease the release of microplastics from their synthetic materials.
Initially, we interviewed research groups working with the development and engineering of shedless synthetic fibers as well as businesses engaged in designing reactive solutions such as washing machine filters and special washing balls. Current disposing and recycling methods were also investigated, where would the consumer properly discard the caught microfibers? This allowed us to assess the existing complications in the development of proactive solutions. We found out that there are very limited options for shedless synthetic textiles and to make the situation even more complicated, noticeable ambiguity in how to measure and interpret data on synthetic shedding.
However, we were met by a very passionate community working tirelessly to develop sustainable solutions to the problem at hand. This inspired us to attempt to facilitate cooperation between the stakeholders by creating a channel through which they could communicate their ideas and share their thoughts, naturally within the boundaries of their intellectual properties. Thus, we concluded the project by gathering different stakeholders to jointly discuss the issue of microplastics together with IKEA. In attendance was representatives of IKEA, Environmental Enhancement, Ocean Clean Wash, Rozalia and Wexco Environmental.
To develop both short-term quick-fixes as well as long-term sustainable strategies, the expertise of every involved actor needs to be utilized. It is our conviction that this can best be achieved through cooperation and teamwork. Our hope is that the initial success of establishing a channel of communication between the different stakeholders will serve as an indicator of the willingness to collaborate and that this mindset will trickle down through the industry.
Our final report submitted to IKEA can be found here.
-  National Research Council. 2015. Public Engagement on Genetically Modified Organisms: When Science and Citizens Connect: Workshop Summary. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/21750.
-  Marris, C. (2001). Public views on GMOs: deconstructing the myths. EMBO reports, 2(7), pp.545-548.
-  McFadden, B. (2016). Examining the Gap between Science and Public Opinion about Genetically Modified Food and Global Warming. PLOS ONE, 11(11).
-  IKEA, (2011) ‘The IKEA Group approach to sustainability ‘ [online] [accessed 20 July 2017]