Saturday, June 20, 2009

High School Student Discovers Plastic-Eating Microbe

Photo courtesy of Treehugger.

Wouldn’t it be an environmental dream come true if plastic bags could be composted just like organic waste can be? Worldwide we produce 500 billion (500,000,000,000) plastic bags annually knowing they can take up to 1,000 years to decompose.

We all know how they take up space in landfills; litter streets and parks; pollute the ocean and kill the animals that eat them.

Photo of Daniel Burd courtesy of Mother Nature Network (MNN).

Burd, 16, a Grade 11 student at Waterloo Collegiate Institute drew on an everyday frustration for the inspiration.

"Almost every week I have to do chores and when I open the closet door, I have this avalanche of plastic bags falling on top of me," he said. "One day, I got tired of it and I wanted to know what other people are doing with these plastic bags."

Realizing that very little existed out there for the recycling and decomposition of plastic bags, he decided to take matters into his own hands. Remember, this is one very smart 16 year-old.

Daniel knew that while it could take 1,000 years, plastic does eventually degrade; so, he decided that microorganisms must be the reason. He decided to isolate these microorganisms capable of breaking down plastic to see if the process could be speeded up.

Daniel's plan was to immerse ground plastic in a yeast solution that encourages microbial growth; and, then isolating the most productive organisms.

Encouraged by the results of the preliminary tests, he kept selecting out the most effect strains of microbe and interbreeding them. After several weeks of selective manipulation, Daniel achieved a 43% degradation of plastic in six weeks. This was an unbelievable accomplishment. Daniel had managed to do what scientists had not been able to do.

The processing of plastics by these methods would have to be contained in highly-controlled environments. We are not talking about a magic bullet that will allow us to continue making and using plastic with total abandon. However, this is still a major scientific breakthrough with applications that can be used now and in the future.

The two strains of bacteria Daniel identified as working together to accomplish this were Sphingomonas (serving as the primary decomposer) with help from Pseudomonas.
Daniel states that industrial application should be easy, "All you need is a fermenter . . . your growth medium, your microbes and your plastic bags."

He continues, "This is a huge, huge step forward . . . We're using nature to solve a man-made problem."

This potentially world-changing idea snagged Daniel first place in the Canadian Science Fair in Waterloo, ON, Canada. He also received a long list of awards, including a $10,000 prize, a $20,000 scholarship, and recognition that he has found a practical way to help the environment.

"Dan is definitely a talented student all around and is poised to be a leading scientist in our community," said Menhennet, who led the school's science fair team.

Daniel Burd is hoping that his idea will be used to help solve the world’s plastics problem.

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