Canadian teen speeds degradation process for plastic bags

Daniel Burd’s national-prizewinning science fair project uses microorganisms.

Customers use the plastic bags in a supermarket in Shanghai, China.

As countries and cities around the world move to ban plastic bags, a Canadian teenager is tackling the problem of what to do with them.

Waterloo, Ontario, high school student Daniel Burd successfully isolated microorganisms from soil and used them to help degrade 43 percent of his polyethylene sample within a few weeks in a science project that recently won him the $10,000 (US $9,800) top prize at the Canada-Wide Science Fair.

“The purpose of my project was to first of all prove that it’s possible to do the degradation, and I just wanted to develop a beginning procedure that could be used,” said the 17-year-old Grade 11 student, who also walked away with nearly $35,000 in university scholarship offers.

“We know that after 40- to 100,000 years, the plastic bags will be degraded naturally. Some type of microbe must be responsible for this. So the first step was to isolate this microbe and that’s what I did,” said Mr. Burd.

To isolate the microorganism, he turned the plastic bags into a powder – an important step, Burd said, because it increases the surface area and helps the microorganisms that can use the plastic to grow.

Once he had the powder, he collected soil samples from a landfill and combined the two with a homemade solution that would encourage microorganism growth. After months of experimenting, he isolated two microbial strains from the genuses Sphingomonas and Pseudomonas.

Burd worked with the microbes to find the combination that would best degrade strips of plastic bags and optimized the process by factoring in elements such as temperature and concentration of microbes. “In the end I was able to find that after six weeks incubation, 43 percent of my plastic bag is degraded.”

He hopes to pursue his research with the goal of raising his degradation percentage and lowering the time required.

His efforts have attracted wide attention, according to local media, including an invitation by the Canadian Intellectual Properties Office to explore the possibility of patenting his ideas.

Burd said the environmental worth of his process is obvious and that he believes it will work on an industrial scale.

“We like these conveniences and we sometimes don’t even consider these effects on our Earth,” he said. “We don’t have a spare world in our back pocket.”

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