The importance of bioplastics cannot be overstated. This was the vision of 16-year-old Elif Bilgin when she entered the 2013 Google Science Fair, winning the “Science in Action Award”.
Bilgin developed a groundbreaking process for fabricating bioplastic from banana peels that are compressed, boiled then dipped in a solution that prevents them from rotting away. Unlike regular petroleum-based plastics, this has huge implications for rapidly advancing cosmetic prostheses and insulating electrical cables.
The exact figures on just how much plastic can be created on an annual basis using this technique are murky, but bananas are in huge supply. In 2011, 16.5 million tonnes were produced globally, with China being the largest market segment. In contrast, China produces 72 million tonnes of plastic per year and that number is only rising. If scalable, Bilgin’s use of banana peels could reduce carbon emissions by a significant amount.
Ecowatch reports that we’ve produced more plastic waste over the past 10 years than during the entire last century. Not a surprising fact, but the negative connotations of plastic production have been growing exponentially, affecting every single person on the planet. Even ignoring the fact that plastic waste suffocates our water and causes our landfills to grow by thousands of pounds annually, it’s a direct threat to human health. It messes with hormonal receptors and takes up to a thousand years to break down, leaving behind a strange chemical residue afterwards. I could go on and on listing the ways plastic is damaging the earth, but you get my point: Bioplastics are a necessity.
Bilgin is in the right mindset here in her use for banana peels to create a non-toxic, renewable plastic that’s naturally biodegradable. Biodegradation of these plastics comes through a natural process where natural balance is restored. We upcycle waste into new materials, then nature does its job and breaks it down. Micro-organisms, enzymes and bacteria metabolize bioplastics, turning them into water, carbon dioxide, biomass and methane. It may very well be possible to extrapolate and improve on Bilgin’s formula to use other forms of organic waste for plastic production as well.
Transitioning away from petroleum-based plastic production on a mass scale isn’t a simple process and it won’t be easy, but it’s a good starting point. Baby boomers have made a literally planet-sized mess that we have to clean up, but it seems we’re beginning to learn from their mistakes. As climate change tightens its grip on us and our rate of production has only increased, it’s very refreshing to see a leader so young rising to take action.