This Kid is Smarter than Your Kid

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(h/t stillman and MsLibrarian)

— or mine. No offense intended. And you, me, and they have a ways to go to make a contribution like this:

… we produce 500 billion [plastic bags] a year worldwide and they take up to 1,000 years to decompose. They take up space in landfills, litter our streets and parks, pollute the oceans and kill the animals that eat them.

Now a Waterloo teenager has found a way to make plastic bags degrade faster — in three months, he figures.

Daniel Burd’s project won the top prize at the Canada-Wide Science Fair in Ottawa. He came back with 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.

Cut the decomposition time from 1,000 years to three months? Not bad. And it was just 1% inspiration —

Daniel, a 16-year-old Grade 11 student at Waterloo Collegiate Institute, got the idea for his project from everyday life.

“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.”

— and 99% basic science perspiration:

First, he ground plastic bags into a powder. Next, he used ordinary household chemicals, yeast and tap water to create a solution that would encourage microbe growth. To that, he added the plastic powder and dirt. Then the solution sat in a shaker at 30 degrees.

After three months of upping the concentration of plastic-eating microbes, Burd filtered out the remaining plastic powder and put his bacterial culture into three flasks with strips of plastic cut from grocery bags. As a control, he also added plastic to flasks containing boiled and therefore dead bacterial culture.

Six weeks later, he weighed the strips of plastic. The control strips were the same. But the ones that had been in the live bacterial culture weighed an average of 17 per cent less.

Now, that would be good enough, if good enough were enough. But Burd tried different microbes, different combinations of microbes, and different temperatures, over and over until:

At 37 degrees and optimal bacterial concentration, with a bit of sodium acetate thrown in, Burd achieved 43 per cent degradation within six weeks.

And for all the scientists who must be asking themselves “why didn’t I think of that,” I guess the lesson is there’s plenty of stuff to think of — even if it isn’t sexy, self-indulgent, or lethal and thus not front-page fare for US media. There’s so much to do. And a sixteen year old kid to inspire us!

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