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Teen Turns Banana Peels into Bioplastic

Teen Turns Banana Peels into Bioplastic

Image source: flickr.com/photos/claireknights

Taking an organic waste material and turning it into an alternative feedstock for a product usually made from petroleum could be a big step toward a more sustainable world. That’s the type of design thinking that can really bridge the gap between our ever-present needs and our growing waste stream, and if this teenager is an example of what the next generation of scientists are capable of, we’re in good hands.

When I take a look at a pile of banana peels, I see something that might be useful in a compost pile, but when 16 year old Elif Bilgin looks at them, she sees a sustainable bioplastic, just waiting to happen.

Elif, of Istanbul, Turkey, just won a $50,000 Science in Action award at the 2013 Google Science Fair for her project which demonstrated the making of bioplastic from old banana peels.

Over the course of two years, and many trials, Elif was able to go from raw banana peels to a functional plastic, in a process she describes as being simple enough that “it is possible to say that one could actually do it at home”.

“The bio-plastic is a material which has the potential of causing a biological reform by means of reducing the amount of pollution caused by other plastic materials which contain petroleum derivatives. Apart from this, the bio-plastic industry’s newness creates room for further development of the bio-plastics manufactured so far. Over a time period of 2 years, I was able to design a method and produce non-decaying plastic using banana peels which can be molded into a making cosmetic prosthetics or used in the electrical insulation of cables. This outcome supported my hypothesis.

The method I designed is so simple, it is possible to say that one could actually do it at home (some chemicals used are irritant but not extremely dangerous). This way, anyone could use this plastic. Also, our beautiful planet will be spared from the consequences of the production of plastics with petroleum derivatives in them such as pollution of the air, land and water.”

One of the challenges she had to overcome was the tendency of her starch-based plastic to begin to decay after just a short time, something that is not acceptable if the product was to stand up to real-life use. She found that by dipping the peels in a weak solution of Sodium metabisulfite (Na2S2O5) before the process of blending and boiling them, she was able to produce a bioplastic that was undecayed after 30 days (previous trial plastics only lasted 3 days).

Elif also found that her bioplastic was nonconductive, which means it could be used for applications such as covering wires or cables, and could be molded into a form to produce a “cosmetic prosthetic” (she molded a plastic thumb from it).

Just imagine a future where every coffee shop and juice bar collects their banana peels and has them “recycled” into enough plastic to offset their use of plastic to-go cups and straws.

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