From packing peanuts to disposable coffee cups, each year the US alone produces some two billion pounds of Styrofoam — none of which can be recycled. Frustrated by this waste of resources and landfill space, Ashton Cofer and his science fair teammates developed a heating treatment to break down used Styrofoam into something useful. Check out their original design, which won both the FIRST LEGO League Global Innovation Award and the Scientific American Innovator Award from Google Science Fair.
Researchers have discovered world’s first polyethylene-eating bacterium
A tiny microbe one day could devour the millions of metric tons of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, that pile up in landfills each year. Researchers in Japan have discovered the world’s first PET-eating bacterium, a critter that uses PET as its major carbon and energy source.
Each year, plastic manufacturers pump out more than 45 million metric tons of PET to make water bottles, salad domes, peanut butter jars, and other products—all of which sport a stamp with the number one inside a recycle symbol.
PET is the most recycled plastic in the U.S., according to PETRA, the PET Resin Association. But recycling rates still only reach about 31% nationwide. The European Union does better, recycling roughly half of its PET. Even so, tens of millions of metric tons of the plastic wind up in landfills each year, where the polymer’s strong ester bonds resist breakdown.
To find microbes that could pull PET apart, a team led by Kohei Oda of Kyoto Institute of Technology and Kenji Miyamoto of Keio University screened 250 sediment, soil, wastewater, and activated sludge samples from a PET bottle recycling facility in Sakai, Japan. After some careful microbial sleuthing, they found one bacterium that thrived on PET films and named it Ideonella sakaiensis after the city where it was found (Science 2016, DOI: 10.1126/science.aad6359).