The BioInspired Institute does cutting-edge work in complex biological and material systems, but from its inception, leadership and faculty were committed to providing students and postdoctoral fellows with more than just technical training. “As faculty, we know that we educate…
Talking Trash With Laura Markley, Waste and Plastics Researcher in the College of Engineering and Computer Science
Laura Markley is a scientist and a communicator who has been weaving these two skillsets together throughout her academic career. Currently a Ph.D. candidate in civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS), Markley studies plastics, water pollution and perceptions of the general public on environmental and sustainability issues.
She is also the force behind the blog WasteFreePhD.com, where she writes about the science of sustainability—including her own research—and shares insights on practical ways the common consumer can reduce waste.
The product of two sustainability-minded parents, Markley has been passionate about the environment from an early age. Upon taking a marine science course in high school, she fell in love with the study of water and water science. She went on to receive a B.S. in environmental earth science from Eastern Connecticut State University and a master’s in earth and environmental science at Lehigh University, where she studied the formation of iron minerals in soils as an indicator of paleo precipitation.
Driven by a perpetual thirst for knowledge (pun intended), Markley finished both of her prior degrees thinking about how much more she wanted to learn. “After completing my undergraduate degree, I felt like the more I learned, the more I learned that I don’t know anything,” she says. “I opted to do my master’s. That flew by and then I was like ‘I still don’t know anything!’ So that’s how I ended up here at Syracuse working on my Ph.D.”
When searching for a Ph.D. program, Markley knew she wanted to delve into more water-based research. She was attracted to the interdisciplinary opportunities offered by ECS’s Center for Environmental Systems Engineering and the EMPOWER program at Syracuse University. Markley is co-advised by Charles Driscoll, University Professor of environmental systems and distinguished professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Andria Costello Staniec, department chair and associate professor in civil and environmental engineering.
“Laura is one of the most well-rounded and engaged graduate students that I’ve worked with,” says Staniec. “Her commitment to sustainability is evident both in her research as well as her broad public environmental education platform. In both of these areas, Laura has already proven herself as a leader and she is poised to have a large impact.”
Markley’s dissertation includes three unique projects that are connected by their relationship to the life cycle impacts of plastics.
First, she studies the effects of certain stress conditions—like being left in the car on a hot summer day or exposure to ultraviolet light—on disposable plastic water bottles. Using breast cancer cells, Markley is investigating if these conditions cause estrogenic chemicals to leach out of the bottle and into the water, and the potential impacts this has on human health.
For her second project, Markley is using survey data from a 2019 social media campaign called #FuturisticFebruary to examine the generation of waste at the household level and consumer perspectives on waste, sustainability and pollution issues.
The campaign encouraged participants to document all their non-perishable waste for one month. By analyzing participant data, Markley is learning more about not only the composition of waste at the household/individual level, but also how environmental attitudes and knowledge of environmental issues factor into the equation.
“The survey asks general questions about how participants view the sustainability of their waste and pollution issues, but also specific questions like ‘do you believe there are floating islands of plastic in the ocean?’” she says. “Looking at this data is helpful in understanding where we may need to improve our communication about certain scientific topics as it relates to sustainability.”
Markley currently spends the bulk of her time on her third project: researching the abundance, distribution and potential sources of microplastics in Onondaga and Skaneateles lakes. With funding from the New York State Water Research Institute at Cornell University through the U.S. Geological Survey and help from the Upstate Freshwater Institute, she collects grab, bucket and net samples seasonally from the two lakes to develop a profile of microplastic concentrations with space and time.
According to Markley, 20% of the annual inflow from the historically polluted Onondaga Lake is sourced from wastewater effluent (a common source of microplastics), with additional potential sources from street litter runoff from the surrounding urban areas and inputs from combined sewer overflow events. A study in contrast, Skaneateles Lake is relatively pristine and provides most of the drinking water for the City of Syracuse.
“Our preliminary results show it’s not only where we sample, but how we sample that changes what microplastics we collect. What we’ve seen is that microplastics can be very diverse in these ecosystems, occurring in all types of colors, shapes and form. Microfibers, which shed from textiles during laundering or during wear or use, are very common, but not yet well understood,” Markley says.
When she’s not in the lab, Markley works on WasteFreePHD.com, where she shares recent research, opines on the science of trash and documents her ongoing commitment to reduce her own waste. She started the blog in 2018 to address a proliferation of misinformation in the waste-free movement.
“I noticed there was a lot of bad information out there about going waste-free and about plastics in general,” she says. “I wanted to make that information more accessible to people and also provide the scientific citations to back it up.”
Markley’s fluency in communicating science to the layperson shines on her blog, which offers approachable and non-dogmatic strategies for reducing one’s own waste.
“Not everyone necessarily has the interest in or the access to the science, but they have a right to it,” she says. “I wanted to create a place where people could get the information and make their own decisions about their behaviors, rather than being told what to do.”
Markley also has a side hustle doing graphic design, another interest she’s had from a young age, having recently designed a plant-based, minimal waste cookbook called “Fetagetaboutit.”
“I’m a very visual learner so I’ve found it important to incorporate graphical elements when communicating science,” she says. “If I have to learn something by reading it, I’ll never learn it.”
In honor of Earth Day and Earth Month being celebrated in April, Markley offers her tips for anyone trying to reduce their waste at the individual or household level.
- Look at your food waste. Do an assessment of how much food and what types of things you’re throwing away and see if there are any opportunities to compost that waste. The breaking down of food in landfills is a huge source of methane, Markley says, yet food waste is an aspect of trash that often gets ignored.
- Plan your meals and grocery lists. Another tip for reducing food waste is to plot out your grocery list and meals for the week before heading to the store. Then you’ll have a plan for all the food you buy, ensuring none goes to waste.
- Conduct a waste audit. You can look at all your trash for the week and see what types of things you most often dispose of. Are you trashing lots of paper towels? Or tossing excess shipping containers and materials from online shopping? Having more awareness of how much waste you’re generating and the main sources of it can be a first step toward reducing, Markley says.
- Gradually replace disposable/single-use items. Markley advises focusing on small changes that you can make over time as you use up existing supplies. If you run out of paper coffee filters, you can buy a reusable one. Instead of buying more paper towels, invest in cloth napkins. When you run out of plastic water bottles, look into purchasing a reusable/refillable one that you can use every day.
- Shop secondhand. Whether you’re looking for a new furniture piece or to spice up your wardrobe, there are plenty of secondhand options out there to save you money and keep resources circulating. Shopping secondhand also allows you to tailor furniture or clothing to your needs—making them more unique to you!
Markley emphasizes the need for progress over perfection when it comes to reducing our carbon footprints. “People have a lot going on right now without someone telling them they need to make only one jar of waste per year or something crazy like that,” she says.