Feeds

Dissolving the plastic bag problem

The Phage Factor

  • alert
  • submit to reddit

Top 5 reasons to deploy VMware with Tegile

Anton By rights the world and its dog should now know the name Daniel Burd. For Daniel Burd has an eco-friendly solution for disposing of the plastic bag menace. About half a trillion plastic bags are produced globally each year, but they take up to 1000 years to decompose. In the meantime they can migrate to the oceans and be ingested by wildlife, with fatal results.

Burd's discovery is bacteria which he reckons in combination can eliminate poly(ethyl)ene bags in about three months. The judges of the 2008 Canada-Wide Science Fair in Ottawa agreed, and awarded Burd top prize. You can read the report he presented ("Plastic not fanastic") here (pdf)].

Burd started with the idea that if plastic bags are being degraded by microorganisms in nature, it should be possible to isolate them. He collected soil samples from a local landfill site, and spent three months culturing them up on a diet exclusively of ground-up polythene bag. At this stage, he reasoned, if there were bacteria of interest, there should be enough of them to make a measurable difference. And so his experiments began.

The cultured broth was introduced to weighed amounts of polythene film strips, and the two were allowed to commerce for six weeks. Measure against a control sample of boiled broth which showed no change, the active samples showed a promising 17 per cent weight loss.

Burd then grew the broth on agar and found it contained four different types of bacteria. These he worked to separate, and tested them individually and in pairs for their polythene appetites. While one type of microbe showed a marked predilection for plastic bag, he also observed that a combination was even better at eliminating polythene. An identification kit enabled him to identify these as Sphingomonas and Pseudomonas types. Pseudomonas has been cited in previous research, but his discovery of the much more ravenous Sphingomonas, and the rest of his experiment, is new.

Further research by Burd on his microbe consortium, as his paper terms it, showed that their rate of digesting polythene was affected by temperature, population density, and by the level of concentration of added sodium acetate. He eventually achieved a stonking 42 per cent elimination of polythene in six weeks. On this basis, Burd projects that a complete dispersal of polythene is possible in under three months.

DIY decomposition

You can do this at home, folks, and you don't need lab equipment, or even to chop up the plastic bags. Burd is reported as having tried five or six whole bags in a bucket of his special goo, and the process worked just as well.

"All you need is a fermenter . . . your growth medium, your microbes and your plastic bags." said Burd. He points out that little energy is required as an input, as the microbes produce heat as they work, and they generate a meagre 0.01 per cent of their body mass as waste CO2. So we are unlikely to change the climate by helping nature's little helpers dispose of plastic bags the Burd way.

An impressive array of awards garnered by this nice piece of science at the Canada-Wide Science Fair is listed here, where it may be noted that among his many talents young Daniel can also write a mean CV.

Turning a new phage

There are resonances in this story of an earlier Canadian. Felix d'Herelle was a self-taught microbiologist, later nominated for a Nobel prize for his work on phages.

Beginner's guide to SSL certificates

More from The Register

next story
PORTAL TO ELSEWHERE scried in small galaxy far, far away
Supermassive black hole dominates titchy star formation
Boffins say they've got Lithium batteries the wrong way around
Surprises at the nano-scale mean our ideas about how they charge could be all wrong
Edge Research Lab to tackle chilly LOHAN's final test flight
Our US allies to probe potential Vulture 2 servo freeze
Europe prepares to INVADE comet: Rosetta landing site chosen
No word yet on whether backup site is labelled 'K'
Cracked it - Vulture 2 power podule fires servos for 4 HOURS
Pixhawk avionics juice issue sorted, onwards to Spaceport America
prev story

Whitepapers

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops
Balancing user privacy and privileged access, in accordance with compliance frameworks and legislation. Evaluating any potential remote control choice.
Intelligent flash storage arrays
Tegile Intelligent Storage Arrays with IntelliFlash helps IT boost storage utilization and effciency while delivering unmatched storage savings and performance.
WIN a very cool portable ZX Spectrum
Win a one-off portable Spectrum built by legendary hardware hacker Ben Heck
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
Beginner's guide to SSL certificates
De-mystify the technology involved and give you the information you need to make the best decision when considering your online security options.