The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish
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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15 Comments on "16-year old discovers plastic-eating microbe: Is this the answer to our plastic problem?"

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david sumanth
10 months 3 days ago

hi daniel would  you write about the making of it .I congragulate your great work and consen of nature . you achive great heights in your life . pleace me the making of it I kindliy requst you I WANT tO it in school science fair

Chris Hovey
3 years 10 months ago

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
5 years 1 month ago

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.

… Read more »

7 years 5 months ago

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
7 years 5 months ago

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
7 years 5 months ago

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… Read more »

7 years 5 months ago

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
7 years 5 months ago

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.… Read more »

7 years 5 months ago

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

terrible person
7 years 5 months ago

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,… Read more »

7 years 5 months ago

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;

Bioplast 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… Read more »

7 years 5 months ago

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… Read more »

7 years 5 months ago

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… Read more »

7 years 5 months ago

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.


heather t
7 years 5 months ago

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.