Dr Imari Walker-Franklin Of RTI International: 5 Things We Must Do To Inspire The Next Generation About Sustainability And The Environment

An Interview With Martita Mestey

Martita Mestey
Authority Magazine
10 min readDec 23, 2023


Teach your kids about sustainability with TV shows like those on National Geographic, Animal Planet, or Discovery Channel. These kinds of documentaries can help build investment and engagement with science, which is the first step to being interested in climate, conservation, and sustainability.

As a part of my series about what we must do to inspire the next generation about sustainability and the environment,I had the pleasure of interviewing Imari Walker-Franklin.

Imari Walker-Franklin Ph.D is a rockstar chemist focused on sustainability and the environment at RTI International. She is an expert on microplastics, PFAS and the other chemicals that can accumulate in people’s bodies and cause harm. Her superpower is making this complicated science accessible to the next generation. One way she does this is as a YouTube influencer on her science communication-based channel where she provides consumer tips on plastic pollution and chemicals in household products. She co-authored a book that published in August, “Plastics,” and is a comprehensive introduction to the plastics life cycle — the impacts on our lives, our future, and our planet — and the actions we can take. She makes regular media appearances including in the Washington Post and The New Yorker. In June, she was a featured panelist alongside the renowned Dr. Sylvia Earle during a webinar on ocean plastics.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I was born in Oakland, California, and raised in the Bay Area before relocating to Georgia for high school. My mother is a lawyer and my father started as an electrical engineer before moving into business. My family exposed me to various fields of STEM through science camps and afterschool programs that kept me intrigued by the field. I have also been an avid bookworm since my earliest memories; I have always had a book close by or in my hand. Growing up so close to the ocean led me to be curious about the vast biodiversity the ocean holds and how it provides a large proportion of the Earth’s oxygen and acts as a buffer against climate change. These findings made me want to learn more about ocean processes and how to protect them, so I decided to study marine science for my undergraduate degree at the University of California Berkeley. During these studies I became part of the university’s New Experiences for Research and Diversity in Science (Cal NERDS) program, which introduced me to a variety of paid research opportunities studying evolutionary plant biology, climate change, and oceanography. Afterward, I went on to Duke University to pursue my doctoral degree in environmental engineering, focused on understanding the potentially harmful chemicals released from plastic pollution into water. I enjoyed my plastics research so much that it eventually led me to start a YouTube channel to share my knowledge with a general audience. I am proud to say, this year the book “Plastics” that I co-authored with Professor Jenna Jambeck at the University of Georgia was published. I have continued much of my research to understand the impacts of plastic pollution in my current role as a research scientist at RTI International.

Was there an “aha moment” or a specific trigger that made you decide you wanted to become a scientist or environmental leader? Can you share that story with us?

When I was studying abroad in French Polynesia for my marine science major, I was asked to put together a research proposal based on the scientific observations we made in the first few weeks. One of my biggest observations was the floating piles of trash lining the coastlines that looked somewhat local and other pieces of plastic trash (bottles, chip containers, trash bags, plastic fragments, etc.) that looked like they could have come from places far away internationally. It made me think about how plastic trash can last for long periods of time and be transported to communities on a global scale via environmental processes if the waste isn’t handled properly. Another observation I made was that people on the island would open-burn their trash in front of their house including their plastic waste. It smelled terrible and made me think of the human health implications of inhaling burnt plastic trash by those burning it and nearby residents. Plastic, while incredibly useful to both industrial and commercial products due to its flexibility and durability, has created a global waste management issue. Many of these observations made me curious about the world of plastic pollution but it wasn’t until I started my Ph.D. that I learned about the potentially hazardous chemicals that are placed inside plastics that can be released into the environment (drinking water, stomach acid, air, soil, food, etc.). I then started to really think about how much plastic we are all exposed to daily like drinking water bottles and food containers that could release these chemicals into the items we consume. And then I learned that microplastics were in our air, water, food, and now in our bodies that could also release these chemical mixtures. It was the cumulation of all these moments that led me toward becoming an environmental engineer who studied chemical release and transformation from plastics and microplastics in order to understand their impact on the environment and human health.

Is there a lesson you can take out of your own story that can exemplify what can inspire a young person to become an environmental leader?

In the beginning of the pandemic (2020), the shutdown of the world gave me time to reflect on the plastic pollution research I was doing in my Ph.D. I figured that all the canceled conferences I planned to attend that year would require me to think of new opportunities to share my research. So I started a YouTube channel to teacha larger public audience about plastic pollution research and solutions. I also thought some part of my channel could be used to teach new students about the field of environmental engineering because when I was exploring the career, I didn’t see many people who looked like me in the field, and I felt like I still didn’t understand what people did as environmental engineers. Within that year, I released over 35 videos, and I got a lot of engagement from the videos with folks interested in pursuing an environmental engineering major and people curious to learn more about ways they could reduce their exposure to plastics and microplastics. I think at this point my channel has come close to 100,000 views. The engagement I have seen from the videos just shows that if you stay persistent at making content about environmental topics that you care about, the right people will find it and can use that information for good.

Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?

The organization I work at, RTI International, is committed to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and is taking actionable steps to reduce our total GHG emissions 60% by 2030 from 2019 levels and advancing toward net zero emissions by 2050. Our science-based targets are aligned with climate science and developed using industry-leading tools and resources from the Greenhouse Gas Protocol (GHGP). In fact, a delegation of my colleagues just returned from the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) where they shared insights and solutions to address the climate crisis. They shared expertise on topics like green ammonia, sustainable agriculture, and the health impacts of climate change.

In Spring 2024, RTI will start construction of its first-ever solar energy system, a 12,800 square foot solar parking canopy atop a parking deck on our Research Triangle Park campus in North Carolina. This project will pave the way for a series of rooftop solar arrays throughout campus and a two-acre solar field providing clean, renewable electricity to our Energy Technology Development Facility.

Can you share 3 lifestyle tweaks that the general public can do to be more sustainable or help address the climate change challenge?

Considering that the majority of plastics are made from oil and gas, climate change and plastic pollution are incredibly interwoven. Working to reduce our use of plastics can help both causes. The lifestyle tweaks I hope folks would consider:

1) Use a reusable water bottle. This will reduce the amount of single-use bottles being consumed. Research shows that the quality of most bottled water is very similar to tap water in the U.S. The benefit is that tap water doesn’t contribute to plastic waste and is free of charge or significantly reduced in price.

2) Become intentional about the amount and type of clothing you purchase. This also helps reduce plastic use as most of our clothes are made of plastic (nylon, polyester, acrylic, etc.). These fabrics release microplastic fibers into the environment that are difficult to recover, and the environmental/human health risk is not well determined. Line-drying your plastic clothes, where appropriate, can help lower energy usage, preserve the clothes to be used longer and reduce the amount of microfibers produced from the drying process.

3) Bring reusable grocery bags to the store. This will reduce the amount of single use grocery bags used. Plastic grocery bags are quite difficult to recycle. And if these bags are collected for recycling, they are usually upcycled for one-time use instead of being continually recycled back into a grocery bag. These are also the types of plastics known to cause harm to wildlife (birds, turtles, whales, etc.) through entanglement or consumption.

Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview: The youth-led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion, what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement?

1. Teach your kids about sustainability with TV shows like those on National Geographic, Animal Planet, or Discovery Channel. These kinds of documentaries can help build investment and engagement with science, which is the first step to being interested in climate, conservation, and sustainability.

2. Read with your kids often. Engagement with books will allow children to become more interested in learning about the world around them. My mother used to read to me often and it’s one of the reasons I became an avid reader, leading me to read science books on animals, places around the world, and new scientific discoveries.

3. Take your kids outside to connect with nature. My childhood experiences with my family, including hiking, camping, fishing, and rafting, led me to have a greater connection with the world outside and made me want to do my part in preserving our natural and finite resource. Visits to the local aquarium, zoo, or museum can also provide amazing experiences for them to learn about the environment.

4. Teach them to garden or recycle or compost. These kinds of lessons in sustainability allow children to learn about the importance of growing fresh food and what happens to items that we no longer want.

5. Talk to your kids about the environment and climate change. This knowledge must continue to be passed on to the next generation. The easiest way to do this is to talk about what the world looked like when you were a child and how it has changed over the years. It can be as simple as discussing the changes to the weather or as complicated as talking about the wildlife that used to exist that is no longer present.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

Businesses can be more profitable by being more sustainable and environmentally conscious. For example, RTI is continuing its sustainability improvement efforts with an eye toward implementing sustainability investments that deliver returns on those investments that are positive and indeed profitable. Additionally, RTI is focusing on changing business behaviors that will improve sustainability while reducing costs. The aim is to deliver higher corporate profitability while also being more sustainable and environmentally conscious.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I would like to share my continued gratitude to my mother. She has always shown me by example the importance of learning to be inquisitive and to constantly learn about the world that surrounds us. She also has taught me the importance of creativity as an outlet. When my mom and I used to paint landscapes together, it not only gave me a new outlet to unwind from the day but it also gave me a platform to imagine the world as it is and how it could be one day. My mom has a huge green thumb for growing vegetables and cooking using fresh foods. Additionally, she exposed me to different cultures and lifestyles throughout my life as we moved to new cities and states and tried all kinds of new delicious foods. Those experiences taught me to be brave by trying new things like exploring environmental engineering for my Ph.D. These life lessons also taught me to treasure nature and to teach those same lessons to others around me.

You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I really hope to inspire people to be more conscious about their plastic use and consumption and to drive innovations toward materials and lifestyles that could be less harmful for the people and our planet.

Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?

“Today’s accomplishments were yesterday’s impossibilities.” — Robert H. Schuller

This quote reminds me that even when a task seems daunting or difficult, it will be possible to get through with determination and persistence. It also shows me of the importance of reflecting on how far I have come and being grateful not only for these amazing opportunities but also the people around me who helped me get to where I am today.

What is the best way for people to continue to follow your work online?

Twitter: @dr_imariwalker

YouTube Channel: Imari Walker

RTI’s website, www.rti.org

This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!