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Student Finds Way to Break Down Plastic Bags with Bacteria

December 30, 2009

16 year old student, Daniel Burd, knows that there’s a lot of plastic bags out there and that they take far too long to degrade. So, he decided to do something about it. He decided to figure out which microorganisms existed in nature that could break down plastic bags.

photo via flickr user cucchiaio

After grinding plastic bags down into a powder, he mixed in water, yeast and a few other common ingredients to create a bacterial soup. He added the plastic and some soil and waited. After three months, he took out the plastic powder and bacteria and tested the bacterial culture with a piece of a plastic grocery bag. Six weeks later, the plastic in with the bacterial culture weighed 17% less than the control.

To figure out which microbes were actually helping the plastic degrade, he did some more tests on new plastic, finding that two strains worked together in a particularly effective method. The two that he found were Sphingomonas bacteria and Pseudomonas.

At the optimal temperature and concentration, he found that within six weeks, he could achieve 43% degradation. Daniel Burd estimates from these preliminary tests that plastic bags could deteriorate within 3 months.

Three months! We’re talking about those plastic bags that fill up landfills, blow across parking lots, get stuck in tree branches, fill up our oceans degrading in a number of months instead of years. Though Daniel Burd’s research is still in infancy, the possibilities are exciting.

Read more about Daniel’s experiment in this Discover article

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