21- and 22-year-old Jeanny Yao and Miranda Wang are making the most of their student years; since high school, the pair have filed 2 patents, founded a company, and raised about $400,000 in pursuit of developing a bacteria that can break down ocean-bound plastic waste.
A high school trip to a landfill piqued their curiosity about alternative solutions to dealing with the massive problem of plastic pollution. As part of a science fair project, Yao and Wang found bacteria in the Fraser River near their hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada that could eat plastics. With assistance from University of British Columbia professor Lindsay Eltis, they focused their experiments on phthalates – a fossil fuel-based additive and carcinogen found in some plastics. They isolated 14 different strains of bacteria and cultured several to feed on a phthalate-enriched diet, ultimately discovering that they could get the bacteria to target the chemical to the exclusion of other food sources. From there, it was just about “giving nature a push.”
“It's going to be nearly impossible to get people to stop using plastic,” Wang told Fast Company. “We need real technology to break it down. Everything in nature should be biodegradable.”
The problem is especially pressing given the state of the world’s oceans: It has been estimated that there are over 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the world’s oceans and 10,000 times more in the deep sea; and plastic and fibers have been found in a quarter of fish sold in markets in the US and Indonesia. Trucost recently estimated the environmental cost to society of plastic use by the consumer goods sector alone is $75 billion.
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“BioCellection is genetically engineering bacteria that will be able to break down plastic pollution 80 times faster than a naturally occurring bacteria,” Wang told NBC. “Using this technology, we can convert plastic pollution into non-toxic carbon dioxide and water.”
Their initial synthetic biological solutions are focused on polystyrene due to its low recyclability and the fact that it makes up about one third of marine pollution. Their prototype process first uses a solvent to dissolve the plastic, then enzymes catalyze the depolymerization of its base chemicals, and break it down into the more manageable compounds of carbon dioxide and water. They hope to begin field-testing this summer in China.
Wang told Fast Company that she envisions sending mobile clean-up stations such as a truck or floating vessel equipped with 150,000 liter bio-digesters to areas where polystyrene can be loaded up, such as landfills and beaches. Their team aims to get the process down to as little as 24-hours, and they hope to remove about 9 grams of plastic per liter of bacteria. Wang estimated each 150,000 liter container of bacteria will cost about $20,000.
Another technology they are working on is expected to allow plastics to be upcycled into more valuable components that can be used in textile manufacturing.
BioCellection’s bacterial products are about two years away from becoming commercially available, Wang told The Vancouver Sun.
Impressively, BioCellection has raised more than $300,000 from investors from the United States, China, and Europe, and have won a slew of awards. Most recently, their team of five made history as the first team in the Wharton School’s Business Plan Competition to win five awards: the $30,000 Perlman Grand Prize, the $10,000 Wharton Social Impact Prize, the $10,000 Gloeckner Undergraduate Award, the $3,000 Michelson People’s Choice Award, and the $1,000 Committee Award for Most ‘Wow Factor.’ They were also the first undergraduate team to win the Grand Prize. They had also previously won $36,000 in other university competitions.
Wang, who acts as BioCellection’s CEO, recently completed courses towards a degree in cellular biology at the University of Pennsylvania (home to the Wharton business school), while Yao just graduated from the University of Toronto with a biotechnology degree. The rest of the team includes Daniel Chapman, a fellow Toronto grad, and University of Pennsylvania students Alexander Simafranca and Eric Friedman.