Bio-plastic is a new find, and a major advancement towards saving the environment that scientists are currently exploring. While it seems impossible to imagine life without plastic, it is not only harming our seas and air, but also taking over our planet – and at a quick rate.
For the United States alone, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provided the following facts:
• 32 million tons of plastic waste were generated in 2011, representing 12.7 percent of total MSW.
• In 2011, the United States generated almost 14 million tons of plastics as containers and packaging, about 11 million tons as durable goods such as appliances, and almost 7 million tons as nondurable goods, such as plates and cups.
• Only 8 percent of the total plastic waste generated in 2011 was recovered for recycling.
• In 2011, the category of plastics which includes bags, sacks, and wraps was recycled at about 11 percent.
• Plastics also are found in automobiles, but recycling of these materials is counted separately from the MSW recycling rate. (SOURCE: EPA)
Plastic is a basic element of our day-to-day existence. But, while it brings convenience to our lives, it also has an ugly face: mainstream petroleum-plastic does not decay. The results?
• The United Nations Environment Programme estimated in 2006 that every square mile of ocean contains 46,000 pieces of floating plastic.
• Once discarded, plastics are weathered and eroded into very small fragments known as micro-plastics. These together with plastic pellets are already found in most beaches around the world.
• Plastic debris causes the deaths of more than a million seabirds every year, as well as more than 100,000 marine mammals.
• Plastic materials and other litter can become concentrated in certain areas called gyres as a result of marine pollution gathered by oceanic currents. There are now 5 gyres in our ocean.
• The North Pacific Gyre, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, occupies a relatively stationary area that is twice the size of Texas. Waste material from across the North Pacific Ocean, including coastal waters off North America and Japan, are drawn together. (SOURCE: UNESCO)
Elif Bilgin did not have to know the facts to understand how non-biodegradable plastic that is not properly disposed-of is ruining the planet. She has always found her city, Istanbul, such a striking place; seeing the pollution of the Marmara Sea, one of its famed tourist spots, breaks her heart. The Marmara looks splendid from afar, but as one draws nearer, the waters are not as pristine as they seem. Plastic is everywhere.
Elif, being a sucker for science, knew there was a way to tackle the plastic issue. But, to do it, she needed 100% devotion and a steely determination to keep trying. After all, a 16-year-old like her is just starting to find her niche. But Elif is not just an ordinary teenager – she’s destined to do great things…
Elif Bilgin was born to ordinary parents. Her mother was reportedly told that Elif was “the most hyperactive baby” the doctor had ever seen. Her mom dismissed the doctor’s comment, although it proved to be true when Elif became a rather stubborn infant. She wouldn’t eat when she was supposed to and lie awake in bed, listening to the voices around her, when it was time to sleep.
She was a pensive toddler, and learned to read and speak fluently at the age of four. By then, Elif’s mom was convinced that her daughter was different. Elif’s parents would even buy her science books to keep her from pestering them with endless questions.
Elif was inspired by Marie Currie’s courage to challenge gender stereotypes in the early days of modern science. A Nobel Laureate, Marie Currie is the only female scientist to-date to have won in two categories (Physics and Chemistry). Elif knew that, with her skill and natural penchant for science, she could certainly do something to change the world.
But, before she could do that, she had to be a child first. Her parents knew they had a gifted child and tried to make life normal for her. Elif continued reading and came to know about the resilience of Thomas Alva Edison, the inventor of the light bulb. Even after failing countless times, Edison did not give up. When he finally succeeded, all he had to say about his errors was: ‘I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’
Those very words would be Elif’s source of motivation in her eventual foray into bio-plastics.
When Elif was in 4th grade, her parents were advised to allow her to take the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children - Revised test (WISC-R), and it certainly validated Elif’s giftedness. Elif was pulled out of regular school and transferred to Koc High School – a government-funded institute for gifted young people. The school’s curriculum is designed to help kids hone their skills and talents.
Since then, Elif has found like-minded peers and mentors who continuously encourage her to make good use of her scientific passions. Elif need not look far for inspiration; the Marmara Sea is a place she visits frequently. The magnificent view never fails to take her breath away. To her dismay, though, the Marmara Sea is not spared by careless people who continue to use it as a dumpsite.
If one looks closely, plastic remains can be seen floating on the waters. Elif could not stay quiet about it; she knew that environmental groups were doing everything they could to educate people about the consequences of dumping plastic into our waters, but what she found in her research was shocking: “The United Nations Environment Programme estimated in 2006 that every square mile of ocean contains 46,000 pieces of floating plastic. (SOURCE: UNESCO)”
As she tried to wrack her brain for the light bulb to turn on, she realized that plastic, if biodegradable, wouldn’t be much of a problem. After further research, she discovered that bio-plastics are now being explored in the hope of alleviating pollution issues. She came across an experiment using potatoes, which are rich in starch, to make bio-plastic. Plastic manufacturers use starch, along with petroleum, as basic ingredients of non-biodegradable plastic.
But why use potatoes, a food source, to make plastic? She reckoned that they better use an organic waste material as a main component in order for the end product to be truly sustainable. Further brainstorming led her to banana peels; almost everybody eats bananas, and they’re easy to cultivate. In some countries, bananas are even a staple food. What made bananas a perfect candidate for her experiment, though, was their richness in starch.
She hit the lab with a perfect ingredient in mind. She felt undaunted when several of her first banana bio-plastics failed to take form, and she kept on working. Three months after starting her experiment, she almost gave up; she thought it was a lost cause. But then, it was better than not doing anything. Even Thomas Edison did not get it right the first time.
With renewed enthusiasm, Elif set out once again to embark on her scientific journey. Her ninth and tenth prototypes were perfect, except that they began to discolor – a sign of deterioration – after only three days.
Elif was almost there, and just couldn’t abandon “Going Bananas.” She did further research and stumbled upon sodium metabisulphite, a component added to wild mangoes to extend their shelf-life. Needless to say, her 11th and 12th banana bio-plastics were successful.
“Going Bananas” Enters Google
After the “Eureka!” moment subsided, Elif realized that completing the experiment was only the beginning of reaching her goal, which was to truly make a difference. She decided that the best way to earn funding and publicity for her product was by entering a competition. The first Google search result was that of the annual Google Science Fair.
After reading the mechanics, Elif knew it was the competition she needed and submitted her work, even without ever expecting to be chosen. So, when she received a call to tell her she made it to the competition, she was ecstatic. Elif brought home the “Science in Action” award in 2013 and received 50,000 dollars in prize money. She also won Google’s “Inspired Idea Award.”
When asked how she was going to spend her prize money, Elif responded like a full-fledged adult: “Use it for med school.”
If Elif has done her share to save the environment at only 16 years old, how much more can we do in our 30s, 40s and 50s? Age is not important, according to Elif; it is one’s passion that determines a world-changer.
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Google Science Fair
Awards and Achievements
- 2013: Won “Science in Action” award and received 50,000 dollars
- 2013: Won Google’s “Inspired Idea Award”
- Finalist in the overall Google Science Fair in the 15/16-year-old category
Scientific American (Science in Action Winner for 2013: Elif Bilgin)
Google Science Fair (Going Bananas!-Using Banana Peels in the Production of Bio-Plastic As A Replacement of the Traditional Petroleum Based Plastic)
TEDx Vienna (Elif Bilgin)
Inhabitat (Sixteen-Year-Old Student Turns Banana Peels Into Bioplastic)
Take Part (Turkish teen Elif Bilgin invents a revolutionary, fossil-fuel-saving bioplastic made entirely out of banana peels.)
Eluxe Magazine (Elif Bilgin Goes Bananas)
Engineering Materials (Creating bioplastics from banana peel)
True Activist (16 year-old Invents Bio-plastic from Banana Peels)
Mediolana (Going Bananas: Elif Bilgin and the Bioplastics Revolution)
Scientific American (Awe and Wonder at Google Zeitgeist)
Raw Story (16-year-old student in Turkey turns bananas into plastic)
Today's Zaman (Turkish student wins Voter's Choice Award for Google Science Fair)
Saudi Gazette (Teen turns banana peels into bioplastic)
US EPA (Plastics)
UNESCO (Facts and figures on marine pollution)