UCL Division of Biosciences


Plastic Pollution

Plastic pollution is a global challenge that causes immense damage to the biodiversity of our oceans. We look at whether molecular science can solve this problem.

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UCL COVID-19 Recovery Competition

a team from our first year students was one of the winning entries

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The UCL COVID-19 Recovery Competition was aimed at developing innovative approaches to treat, prevent or mitigate the global disruption from COVID-19. It was organised by the UCL Division of Surgery and Interventional Science, in partner with UCL Innovation and Enterprise.  The Biosciences first year team project, "Covicycle", was targeted to solve the pollution brought about by the improper disposal of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). 


Our aim was to create a response to the sharp rise in plastic pollution and the death of sanitation workers across the world as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Covicycle is a scalable, sustainable solution to collecting, sterilising and recycling public PPE waste emerging from the COVID-19 crisis. We aim to collect public PPE waste (primarily gloves and masks) at local collection points in popular supermarkets every 5 days. Medical-grade sterilisation is then carried out at the Covicycle warehouse. Masks are sterilised by an autoclave. They then undergo quality checks, stamped with a Covicycle logo and packaged to be resold via our website. Gloves are sterilised in UV cabinets. They would then be weighed and packed into boxes, to be delivered to a potential recycling company such as ‘Terracycle’ who would partner with us in the glove recycling process. 
Covicycle will earn its revenue from the sale of sterilised masks and products made from the sterilised, recycled gloves.This revenue will be used to expand Covicycle coverage to include PPE waste from hospitals and pharmaceutical companies.  Our idea creates employment opportunities and contributes to economic growth. This will add to the ongoing global initiative around sustainable development and a greener economy. It will also reduce the global PPE shortage thereby preparing us for future pandemics

Jiarni Li, Nishika Jin, Priyanka Peres and Sachi Shah


Recycling is one way of tackling pollution but scientists are researching ways to biodegrade plastics completely.

Plastic Pollution in Detail

by Professor Stephen Price

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The Curious Case of the Wax Moth

Firstly, I want to tell you a story that demonstrates  how scientists sometimes stumble on discoveries. The story shows you that scientists need to be alert to opportunities for study, always questioning what they see around them. It also shows that often, luck plays a huge part in scientific breakthroughs.  The story starts with a young scientist who worked in the Division of Biosciences, here at UCL. Her name is Federicca Bertocchini - she is an Itallian scientist who has worked in Italy, the USA and the UK. She is now leading her own group of scientists in Spain.  In her spare time, Federicca is a keen amateur bee keeper! 

One day, Federicca went to look at her hives in the field and she discovered something horrible. The hives had been invaded by something called a wax moth. These moth creatures (see picture above) can sometimes get into a hive  where they lay eggs  - which hatch into larvae. These wax moth larvae can do terrible damage to the hives because they destroy the wax that the bees use to make the hive and store honey in.  She decided that she would pick up each of the larvae and take them back home to decide what she was going to do with them. In her backpack, she had a sandwich that she had bought from M&S and so she took the plastic bag from M&S and put the larvae into this bag and took them all home. She tied up the opening of the plastic bag and left the bag on the floor in her flat.  In the morning, she discovered that the wax moth larvae had made holes in the M&S plastic bag and were crawling all over her living room! Obviously, she was upset but like any good scientist,  she thought - “I wonder how they managed to get out?” “How did they make the holes to escape?” So, as a scientist, she decided to do some experiments.

The first thought she had is that the larvae just ate holes in the bag. To test this, she took some larvae and killed them and then mashed them up into a paste. When she smeared the paste onto a plastic bag, she found that if she left the paste to work for a day or so, it created holes in the plastic. This immediately suggested that there is something in the body of the larvae that can degrade plastics! She then conducted some experiments to see what happens to the plastic when you put the paste onto it. She did an experiment where she looked at the chemicals inside the plastic and investigated what happened to those chemicals when the larvae paste is on it. This technique is called fourier transform infrared spectroscopy and allowed her to identify that the plastic - which is a polymer (long chains of individual identical building blocks of chemical) - is broken down into the individual building blocks. These building blocks, called glycols are actually a potential fuel.  It is possible that the wax moth paste contains chemicals or proteins that can degrade plastic into a fuel!

The research paper is in the reading list section on this page.   It contains more detail on the experiments that Federicca conducted. It’s only one page long (sometimes science articles only need to be short) so please try to go through it carefully.

As a scientist, try to think what Federicca might need to do now in order to use her discovery? There are no right answers as Federicca is still working on the problem. With your ideas, I can send them to her so that you can contribute directly to a science project that is still ongoing!

Plastic Pollution - key questions

Have a look at this short powerpoint which will help you to ask the key questions on your research path


To understand the science in greater depth, watch the talk below by Professor Price

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Essential Reading


This publication was written by Fredericca Bertochinni and details her experiments with wax moths


Key words


plastics are a group of materials, either synthetic or naturally occurring, that may be shaped when soft and then hardened to retain the given shape. Plastics are polymers. A polymer is a substance made of many repeating units

Single-use plastic

A single-use plastic is deposable plastic that's designed to be used once then tossed or recycycled.  This includes everything from plastic water drink bottles and plastic bags to disposable razors.  They are chiefly made of polyethelyne, polyvinyl chloride and polystyrene.


A polymer is a substance or material consisting of very large molecules called "macromolecules", composed of many repeating subunits.  The materials have unique properties, depending on the type of molecules being bonded and how they are bonded.  Some polymers bend and stretch, like rubber and polyester.  Others are hard and tough.


Polymerization is the process to create polymers. These polymers are then processed to make various kinds of plastic products. During polymerization, smaller molecules, called monomers or building blocks, are chemically combined to create larger molecules or a macromolecule. Hundreds of such macromolecules collectively form a polymer.  For example, hundreds of ethylene monomers are polymerized to form polyethylene polymer used for making carrier bags.