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News item: Boy Discovers Microbe that Eats Plastic

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2 comments, last: Jul-18-2009   Add a comment   Contributor:  TheTeam (Jul-12-2009)
Optimism: 4 Categories: Pollution, Sustainable Living

Daniel Burd developed a bacteria that can eat plasticsIt's not your average science fair when the 16-year-old winner manages to solve a global waste crisis. But such was the case at last May's Canadian Science Fair in Waterloo, Ontario, where Daniel Burd, a high school student at Waterloo Collegiate Institute, presented his research on microorganisms that can rapidly biodegrade plastic.

NOTE: a bit of confusion... there are TWO high school students who discovered plastic-consuming microorganisms. The first was Daniel Burd (last year). The second was Tseng I-Ching (last month), a high school student in Taiwan.

Daniel had a thought it seems even the most esteemed PhDs hadn't considered. Plastic, one of the most indestructible of manufactured materials, does in fact eventually decompose. It takes 1,000 years but decompose it does, which means there must be microorganisms out there to do the decomposing.

Could those microorganisms be bred to do the job faster? That was Daniel's question which he put to the test by a very simple and clever process of immersing ground plastic in a yeast solution that encourages microbial growth, and then isolating the most productive organisms.

The preliminary results were encouraging, so he kept at it, selecting out the most effective strains and interbreeding them. After several weeks of tweaking and optimizing temperatures Burd was achieved a 43 % degradation of plastic in six weeks, an almost inconceivable accomplishment. 

With 500 billion plastic bags manufactured each year and a Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch that grows more expansive by the day, a low cost and nontoxic method for degrading plastic is the stuff of environmentalists' dreams and, I would hazard a guess, a pretty good start-up company as well.

NOTE: to the comment below. Yes there are certainly methods for decomposing plastic, but most are chemical in nature not organic, requiring high temperatures and chemical additives to cause the plasticizers to vaporize, for instance this patent on PVC extraction. There have been several successful bacteria based solutions developed at the Dept. of Biotechnology in Tottori, Japan as well as the Dept. of Microbiology at the National University of Ireland, but both apply only to styrene compounds.

It goes without saying that these discoveries need to be tested to ensure, for instance, that the bi-products of organic decomposition are not carcinogenic (as in the case with mammalian metabolism of styrene and benzene). The processing of plastics by these methods would also have to be contained in highly controlled environments. So, no, we're not talking about a magic panacea or a plastic-free paradise, but the innovative application of microorganisms to break down our most troublesome waste products is nevertheless a major scientific breakthrough.

ANOTHER NOTE: one of our readers pointed out a very interesting study in 2004 at the University of Wisconsin that isolated a fungus capable of biodegrading phenol-formaldehyde polymers previously thought to be non-biodegradable. Phenol polymers are produced at an annual rate of 2.2 million metric tons per year in the United States for many industrial and commercial applications including durable plastics.

See original news item: ThePrefabProject.com, Jun-12-2009  
Related PlanetThoughts.org reading:
  A World Of Plastic (Article And InfoGraphic) (Aug-2-2011)
  I Think This Is A Good Idea, At Least Where I Li... (May-13-2011)
  Recycling? What A Waste. (Oct-17-2010)
  New Mushroom-Based Packaging Could Replace Styro... (Sep-16-2010)
  Vegan Jelloware Re-Invents The Disposable Cup (Aug-14-2010)
  Dirty Little Secret: Who Wants To Live Forever (... (May-19-2010)
  Plastics In Oceans Decompose, Release Hazardous ... (Aug-29-2009)
  Plastic Marine Debris: What We Know (Aug-21-2009)
  Would You Email a Complaint About Extra Packagin... (Jul-23-2009)
  The Plastic Decision: How I Learned NOT to Love ... (Jul-11-2009)

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Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Jul-18-2009)   Web site
I think it should be noted that plastic does not truly "re-cycle", it "downcycles". It loses quality on re-use, and as far as I know can only be re-used maybe once, and then cut into little pieces to use for artificial surfaces or similar purposes with limited capacity to absorb all the incoming plastics, even if they were all being "re-cycled".
  
Comment by: timxthomson (Jul-18-2009)   Web site

While congratulating these students, I think it would be as well for us to remember that, as the effects of Peak Oil becoming increasingly obvious, we will all discover over the next few years that plastic is a resource to be recycled and reused again and again - one which we shall be reluctant to destroy. There has already been speculation that we will soon need to 'mine' old landfill sites for the plastics they contain!
Increasingly the emphasis must be towards reuse, recycling and a less 'consumeristic' way of life, rather than destruction or burial of the detritus of our self-indulgent society.

  
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About contributor Member: TheTeam (PlanetThoughts Team) TheTeam (PlanetThoughts Team)

Member: TheTeam (PlanetThoughts Team) The volunteers of PlanetThoughts.org are happy to give you their best selection of news, opinion, reviews, stories, quotes, tips, and more. We hope you enjoy the reading... and thinking. Thanks!

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