Stéphane Bruzaud, meeting with an enquiring mind and his microscope
We left him last November on the docks of Lorient when TARA returned to her home port. He was presenting some samples of plastics recently collected in the Mediterranean Sea to journalists.
Months went by and Stéphane Bruzaud has returned to the University of South Brittany in Lorient and his material engineering laboratory. On his office walls are posted news clippings and photoportraits from local newspapers. His recent celebrity makes him smile. Stéphane Bruzaud, victim of his own success? Not yet. Creating high expectations? More than ever.
Indeed, since the return of the TARA MEDITERRANEAN expedition, it has been difficult to restrain expectations around the results of some 2,300 samples collected during seven months at sea. Beyond a first alarming observation regarding the presence of macroplastics every time the nets were lifted out, most of the work still remains to be done for the teams involved in this ambitious project.
“The objective is, first, to build teams that will work on the analyses. Last March, we met with thirteen French and foreign laboratories under the responsibility of Gaby Gorsky (Scientific Director of the TARA MEDITERRANEAN expedition) in order to allocate activities. Then, the job will be to find funding to hire PhD students, staff and trainees to help us analyze all these samples on a daily basis. »
On the laboratory bench, Stéphane takes from a cardboard box several vials filled with Mediterranean Sea water – relics of previous experiments. On the surface are plastic particles that Stéphane and his teams subject to a rigorous identification process.
“Two types of samples can be distinguished: 1) macroplastics with dimensions on the order of several millimeters and 2) microplastics, measuring less than a millimeter, even a few micrometers. To study macroplastics, we use fairly common analyzing tools such as spectroscopy. Microplastics are more challenging to analyze because of their extremely small dimensions. We associate microscopy with spectroscopy in order to perform analysis at the scale of microns. The objective of these analyses is to identify the source of these pollutions in order to propose solutions to these issues.
In the long run, the study of the samples collected during the TARA MEDITERRANEAN expedition should lead to a full-scale mapping of the plastics proliferating at the surface of the Mediterranean Sea. The first observations highlight the prevalence of plastic packaging waste in the contents of the MANTA nets hauled aboard TARA. A pollution that echoes with Stéphane Bruzaud’s core activity: the development of bioplastics.
“My specialty is the production of bio-polymers that will be used to create bioplastics. This means working on the production of new materials that avoid the use of oil. We’re using plant resources instead – in particular, wastes from the agro-food industry of Brittany – to develop polymers that are more environmentally friendly, biodegradable, compostable, recyclable. In any case, we will have better control of their fate.”
Could the results of the TARA MEDITERRANEAN expedition lead to the development of a genuine local production of bio-plastics? This is the fervent wish of Stéphane, who has brought together the political and industrial stakeholders of the western region of France around these challenges.
“We now know how to produce environmentally friendly materials, but we are still facing two to three times higher manufacturing costs than traditional materials. Politicians can also act on these questions. We know that in the proposed Energy Transition Act currently being discussed at the French National Assembly, a clause seeks to ban the use of non-biosourced and non-biodegradable packaging by 2018, and the use of disposable dishware by 2020. Industrials and consumers will have to find solutions and we hope to be in a position to propose credible alternatives by then.”
Global solutions to boost the local economy? Stéphane Bruzaud may be able to solve the equation and show that it is possible to see the future through a microscope.
Interview by Pierre de Parscau