Next in our series on the next generation of young innovators and inventors, we’re looking at three youth-led projects tackling plastic waste. What we loved about all their stories was that they weren’t afraid to ask questions and above all, learn. Join us at our Mega Maker Lab this August for the chance to try out a plastic shredder and turn your rubbish into crafts.
Plastic pollution has been a large part of this coverage over the last few years. Helped by the so-called ‘Blue Planet effect‘ engendered by BBC’s flagship natural history series in 2017, we’ve seen a ban on plastic straws in the UK, increased charges for plastic bags and a surge in sales of reusable bottles and coffee cups, among other measures.
For us, one inspiring strand of the whole movement has been youth action. Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has made an unprecedented impact, an impression owed in part to the fact that she has achieved so much as a teenager.
In this post we’re exploring how young minds have been tackling the plastic problem to create change in their communities and the wider world.
Going Bananas For Plastic
Elif Bilgin‘s website proudly proclaims ‘STUDENT. SCIENTIST. INVENTOR’. Just like Greta Thunberg and others, age and inexperience are seen as a strength, not a weakness.
This is certainly the case for Istanbul’s Elif, now aged 20, who spent two years developing her plant-based prototype, succeeding at the age of 16. She was inspired after discovering that Thailand throws away 200 tons of banana peels every day, and that mango skin had previously been used to make polymers.
Science is my calling. It also means I have started the process of changing the world
Elif Bilgin, student, scientist, inventor
Elif’s aim was to develop a plastic-like material that replaces the need for the petroleum found in traditional plastic. The result is a non-decaying bioplastic (a material derived from renewable biomass such as food waste and wood chips). The starches and cellulose in banana peels can be used to create materials to insulate wires and make medical prostheses.
Her plans include attending medical school, one day realising her dream of a greenhouse made entirely of waste and continuing “the process of changing the world”.
The Ocean Cleanup
In 2011, Boyan Slat was a Dutch 16-year-old diving in Greece. He noticed the amount of plastic built up on the beach and resolved to do something about it. Eight years later and Boyan is now CEO of The Ocean Cleanup, his solution to the problem of plastic waste.
Through observing and studying the way that ocean plastic settles, Boyan developed his original designs from his teenage bedroom. Over the years he turned $200 pocket money into $2 million of crowdfunding for The Ocean Cleanup.
Revolving oceanic water systems called gyres group plastic and debris into huge collections known as ‘patches’. By creating artificial coastlines, Boyan’s invention uses the power of currents to break up these patches and allow the ocean to clean itself.
Human history is a long list of things that were impossible and then were done
Boyan Slat, inventor and CEO
Projections for a full-scale rollout are that the project could cut the size of the Pacific garbage patch, the largest gyre deposit, by 50% in five years. In fact, Boyan aims for plastic-free seas by 2050 – coincidentally the same year that the amount of plastic in the ocean is expected to exceed fish if we continue at our current rates of wastage.
Setting Guinness World Records since the age of 14, Boyan is no stranger to accolades. He gave a TEDx Talk on his invention in 2012, and was the youngest ever recipient of the UN’s Champions of the Earth award in 2014. He shows no signs of resting, saying “pessimism is what preserves the status quo, and optimism is what brings us forward”.
Bye Bye Plastic Bags
Looking around their island, to Melati and Isabel Wijsen the problem was clear. Bali produces the most plastic waste in the world after China. Of the 680 cubic metres (a 14-storey building’s worth) that the country produces every day, only 5% is recycled.
“Well, who’s going to do something about it?” they asked themselves after coming away from a lesson about inspirational change-makers. The sisters were unsure what a 10 and a 12-year-old from Bali could do, but they wanted to help and didn’t want to wait.
We are the future, but we are here now, and we can make things happen
Melati Wijsen, campaigner and activist
However, not everyone was so convinced. Starting with a petition, the sisters got permission to campaign inside customs at Bali’s main international airport. They eventually collected 100,000 signatures.
After dedicated campaigning and a memorandum of understanding to reduce the number of plastic bags in Bali by January 2018, a full ban was introduced at the beginning of 2019. Meanwhile, Isabel is yet to graduate from high school.
The sisters’ initiative, Bye Bye Plastic Bags, has now gone global, with 35 teams around the world. They’ve spoken at over 300 events and, most importantly, to 45,000 fellow students about their cause. Education is everything to Isabel and Melati; as they say, “we cannot solve a problem we are not aware of”.