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May 28, 2008

16-year old discovers plastic-eating microbe: Is this the answer to our plastic problem?

 

Last week, Daniel Burd, a 16-year old Canadian student, won the top prize at the Canada-Wide Science Fair in Ottawa for his discovery of microbes that will break down polyethylene bags. This article in The Record explains his procedure and how he was able to isolate the specific microbes that will break down the plastic. So far, his microbes have achieved a 43% degradation of the plastic after 6 weeks. Burd theorizes that in 6 more weeks, the plastic would be completely gone, although he has yet to prove that.

First, I want to congratulate Daniel for his hard work on behalf of the environment and for possibly achieving what so far adult scientists have not been able to. Amazing. Being able to biodegrade plastics without the use of toxic heavy metal additives (as are used in oxo-degradable plastics) could be a useful tool in cleaning up the plastic mess we have already created.

But does this mean that plastic bags are now off the hook and that plastic packaging has been redeemed? Can we continue to use as much of it as we want guilt-free? Plastic is still made from non-renewable fossil resources. It’s manufacture uses energy and creates pollution in the form of pre-production plastic pellets, aka nurdles, that can escape and cause harm to the marine environment. And unlike paper bags which biodegrade easily and naturally when exposed to the elements, plastic bags will need to be processed in a controlled way at a temperature of 37°C (99°F) because the microbes that break them down don’t exist in abundance in the natural world, certainly not in the cold ocean.

Daniel’s discovery could be good news for the environment, but only if it’s used as a way to break down the plastic waste that already exists and isn’t simply used as an excuse to create more. When asked the question, “Paper or plastic?” we’re learning to answer, “Neither. I have my own reusable bag.” Paper is biodegradable, but we don’t use biodegradability as a reason to cut down more trees for bags. Biodegradable plastic, whether made from corn or sugar or now possibly oil, shouldn’t be squandered either.



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14 comments
Chris Hovey
Chris Hovey

The reason that "adult scientists" haven't discovered anything is because if they did then they would all lose their big fat research grants. It's a huge scam and a shame that the world revolves around the great god of cash, if it didn't then we would have a lot more cures for so called incurable diseases and solutions to our environmental problems but no, the scientists supported b y corrupt governments and pharmaceutical companies just want to string everyone along with their unwillingness to "discover" anything and keep on getting richer and fatter whilst the problems keep on getting bigger.

Karam Khella
Karam Khella

Hello Daniel Burd, You are great scientist of present ages.I really like people like you who love Mother earth and are working constantly.I am also working to serve Mother Earth .In present ages we have to save our environment rather than creating new goods. Once again thanks a lot for discovering plastic eating bacteria.

Anonymous
Anonymous

RE: Mr BioPlast and his enzymes in plastic.I have been following your endless blog postings of your claims, why are you so desperate for sales? I think I know why!Your 'so called' Bioplast in NOT a Bioplastic, it is NOT certified as biodegradable OR compostable by any of the authorities(OK Compost, BPI, DIN CERTCO) that issue the specifications you claim, in fact the ONLY people that have 'tested' your products are YOU!!Your BioPlast is made from FOSSIL FUEL based plastic, producing millions of tonnes of greenhouse gasses worldwide in manufacturing.Plastics are proven to attract high levels of poisonous chemicals, and your BioPlast will break down into small particles that after collecting poisonous chemicals, could be taken up by the food chain and poison the eco-system, right up to us.Your BioPlast is ADDING to greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere, these are the cause of climate change that is linked to increasing crop failures.The world needs to invest $45 trillion in energy in coming decades, build some 1,400 nuclear power plants and vastly expand wind power in order to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, according to an energy study released Friday, and yet you are still happy to pollute with your CO2 generating plastics????http://biz.yahoo.com/ap/080606/japan_iea_climate_change.htmlThe answer is NOT Mr BioPLast and his enzymes !!The answer is plant based plastics ;)Plant based plastics ARE biodegradable and compostable(many compostable at home) and certified as such.Plant based plastics REDUCE greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as the plants grow. Growing more plants for plastic would REDUCE greenhouse gases and help reverse climate change AND crop failures.One study shows that "every pound of soy-based polymers produced instead of petroleum-based removes 2.1 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere".Another study shows that in manufacture, plant based plastics use 30% less energy and create just 25% of the greenhouse gases that fossil fuel plastics do. Also starch based plastics consume 2190 kg of GHG per tonne of plastic whilst the plants are growing.If you want plant based plastic bags, made from potato and corn starch, and manufactured in the UK,(and cheaper than Tesco or Sainsburys!) head to:http://www.comp-bio.co.ukFor the plant based plastic just go to:http://www.stanelcoplc.com

ashley
ashley

I have been trying to rid my life of plastic, but for the occasional plastic lid, wrapper or bag wouldn't it be cool to have a bucket of plastic eating microbes next to the compost that I could just toss the plastic into and it would be eaten up? Of course, like terrible person said, what do they break the plasic into? fertilizer for fake plastic plants?

Anarres Natural Health
Anarres Natural Health

I'd love to see the oceans and landfills cleaned up with these microbes in a contained way, but biodegradable plastics are for many an excuse to keep on consuming. At a Green Enterprise Toronto gathering, someone pretty much said that the solution to the plastic oceans problem would be found so we need not worry.So I do believe that we need to talk about the lifestyle benefits of freeing ourselves from "convenience". Refilling beautiful containers brings a certain amount of grace to consumption. Bulk foods are healthier, less processed or unprocessed foods. Gardening is beautiful. Living greener is more fulfilling.

Michelle Verges
Michelle Verges

Geez, it's must have been a while since I've posted a comment b/c your list of disclaimers has grown quite a bit! ;0)Beth, I'm totally with you on this one. While I commend this student for creating a project that deals with a current issue, I'm not convinced this clinches the underlying problem, which is our dependence on oil. As you know, the US consumes an estimated 12 million barrels of oil to make plastic bags. Although his project is able to convert those bags into CO2 and H2O, it still leaves me puzzled as to why we'd want to use oil for this purpose. I'm also not sure how this process would be carried out on a macro level. Put it this way, I'm still going to use my reusable bags and forgo the use of plastic bags altogether. :0)M

SootsandArya
SootsandArya

but we lykz playing w/ plastick bagz nom nom nom don't want them all 2 get eaten by microbez save us 1 or 2 plz kthxbai

Cat Chapin-Bishop
Cat Chapin-Bishop

Evolution being what evolution is, it is inevitable that, if there aren't already microbes that will eat this crap, there will be some day.However, evolution being what evolution is, there is no reason to believe that such microbes will necessarily break down plastics without leaving by-products (within their bodies, to be released when they die, or excreted immediately) that will be toxics to humans...or other microorganisms, like plankton, or fish, or you name it.I'm not saying this is a bad thing, what this kid has found. But it's no substitute for not polluting the environment in the first place. And it would be rash to release these bugs into the environment without a lot of careful, careful study.Red tides are bacterial. All natural, too. And very, very toxic. Give an organism food, and a niche in the ecosystem, and it will take advantage of that. Which might--or might not--turn out to work well for other living things.

arduous
arduous

This is seriously awesome. Thanks for bringing it to our attention, Beth.

terrible person
terrible person

Wouldn't it be great if they produced useful energy in the process? I guess they produce some hear. But what do his microbes break the plastic waste *into*? The articles say "water and a little carbon dioxide", but where do all the other components of the polymers go? Just into the bacteria, to build strong bodies 12 ways? What if the bacteria prosper too well, and become bigger and fiercer and more terrible (and trust me, I *know* terrible) and get out of control? What else do they eat? (I mean, they've only been able to eat polyethylene starting recently, yes?)Blame Canada, blame Canada!Worried about unintended consequences, having read too much science fiction ...

Clif
Clif

Wait a sec, Anonymous, the process you are describing breaks down bags that are manufactured with that process in mind. That would mean switching to another kind of plastic bag.This kid has found a way to break down polyethylene bags which are not designed with any breakdown process in mind. In other words, his discovery works on what we have.ATTENTION ENTREPRENEURS: here is an idea for you. Design an electronic gadget that detects cordless phone signals in the home and is small enough to wear on a keyring (with house keys, car keys, etc). When the signal is lost, the device beeps.Why??? Because I would have one on me. Whenever I would leave the house and got outside of the range of my home phone (a couple of hundred feet away), the beeper would go off to remind me: YOU FORGOT TO TAKE YOUR REUSABLE GROCERY BAG - GO BACK AND GET IT NOW!!!Yesterday when I walked to the grocery, I forgot, as usual, to take my backpack for carrying groceries. As punishment, I forced myself to carry everything I bought home in my arms...NOT EASY, but maybe it will make me remember next time. If this doesn't work, next time I will force myself to sit down in front of the grocery store and EAT everything I have just bought...that should make me remember, I think.

Anonymous
Anonymous

This biodegradable technology based on bacteria has already been developed in India in 2000 and already exist in the market since 2005 as Bioplast Biodegradable Plastics.Also see; http://www.bioplast.com.tr/bio-bozunur-plastics.htmlBioplast is a manufacturing company of BIOPLAST Branded Biodegradable Garbage Bags and Fridge Bags for the household markets and for the industry as well as Biodegradable Carrier Bags and Vegy Bags for the retail sector using their own patented unique formula of bacteria enzyme base substrate as against starch base as used by other manufacturers world over which is not as strong or durable as polymer (plastic) bags and has a cost addition of 300%-400%. Also starch based products can comprise of genetically modified crops (GM Crops) which contains PLA the substitutes can increase emissions of greenhouse gases on landfill sites and releases Methane which is 23 times more damaging than the C02 that Al and Goreites have demonized and cannot be recycled in Britain. See The Guardian reported on Saturday on “Corn starch based material can damage the environment”;http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/apr/26/waste.pollutionBioplast is the only Biodegradable technology in the world using bacteria enzyme base substrate which is 100% biodegradable within 6 months after disposal as per ASTM-D 5988-1996 and EN 13432:2000/ISO 14855 standards with the lowest cost addition.Bioplast biodegradable products are also compostable and hence enhancing the nutritive value of the remaining soil. All the ingredients of Bioplast biodegradable plastic products are food grade and non-toxic in nature therefore suitable to be in contact with food products. Bioplast believes that this great innovation will go a long way in preserving the ecological balance around the world which has brought intelligent and affordable solution to the disposal of polyethylene plastic waste problem worldwide. Now the local and central Governments must ban all non-biodegradable plastic bags and force all the retailers to use ONLY 100% Biodegradable bags in their stores as an alternative to reusable canvas bags which will be the evidence of their sincere concern for the environment and their commitment to tackling the considerable problem of plastic bag waste and the pollution."What will you tell your children? Were you part of the Problem or part of the Solution?"http://www.bioplast.com.tr

Burbanmom
Burbanmom

Wow. This young man should get a nobel prize for this work! Why haven't any of the worlds' scientific grown-ups been able to figure this out? Are we not funding enough environmental studies? Oh wait. I know that answer.Anyhow, I'm super-impressed. All my kids do is color on the walls and build lego fortresses.'Burbanmom

heather t
heather t

Yep. This discovery might be a way to get rid of some of the plastic already in the wastestream, but no way does it get plastic off the hook.Brilliant kid, tho! I love kid inventors and hope I am raising one or two of them myself.

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