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Brief project overview

Turn styrofoam (polystyrene #6) into a safe biodegradable plastic using bacteria.

Background information

77% of the polystyrene produced annually in the USA is thrown in the landfill where it resides for years because it biodegrades extremly slow. In 2000, 1% of post-consumer polystyrene was recycled in the USA. Therefore, we need to find an efficient process to recycle styrofoam.

Research problems and goals

Dublin reseachers published a paper in April 2006 that explained a procedure to recycle polystyrene. First, they burned polystyrene to styrene oil at 520 degrees Celsius, and then used a special bacterial strain to convert styrene oil to a biodegradable plastic (polyhydroxyalkanoate, or PHA).

This 2 step method is the most effiecient yet, but unfortunatly the first step isn't that safe. Pyrolysis of polystyrene, creates trace amounts of byproducts such as toluene. However when this process is done on a large scale it is no longer in trace amounts. The chemical toluene is carcinogenic and leads to serious health problems (brain damage).

We propose a process that turns styrofoam (polystyrene #6) into a safe biodegradable plastic using bacteria. By removing the first step of heating the styrofoam then the carcinogens can be avoided.

Project details and methods

Finding bacteria that would take in polystyrene and digest it into a biodegradable substance. Or taking toluene and the other carcinogens and breaking them down into safer substances.

Predicted outcomes

Hopefully, this process would be used worldwide, the environmental concerns would be eliminated, and the world would be a safer happier place ^__^

If this process is not successful, then rather than recycling styrofoam we can reuse it for other purposes. Hopefully, there is a market or need for items that can be produced out of reused styrofoam. For example objects used as cautionary devices for people can be made out of styrofoam rather than concrete and metal.

Needed resources

A library of bacteria to test for its ability to biodegrade polystyrene.

Biological programmers to make bacteria that can biodegrade polystyrene.

Organic chemists to find ways to break toluene and other carcinogens down into safer substances.

original article from Environmental Science & Technology

article from Scientific American about original paper

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