Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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Contact: Michael Bernstein
American Chemical Society

Microbes change disposable cups and plates into environmentally friendly plastic

With the season for picnics and beach weekends approaching, chemists may have found a way to keep disposable cups, plates and utensils — so popular at birthday parties and many outdoor activities — from overstaying their welcome in the environment.

What researchers have found is a special kind of soil bacterium that could change commonly used polystyrene foam — known as Styrofoam™ — into plastic that eventually melts away, significantly reducing the environmental impact of this difficult-to-recycle item. A study about this finding is in the April 1 issue of the American Chemical Society journal, Environmental Science & Technology.

While there is little recycling of polystyrene today, reusing other products can do much to protect the environment, according to Paul T. Anastas, Ph.D., Director of the American Chemical Society’s Green Chemistry Institute. Recycling aims to eliminate the word "waste," Anastas notes. "Waste is just something people haven’t found any use for," he says. "You could look at a twig as waste, but a bird gives it new life when it uses it in building a nest."

He urges children and their parents to find uses for things they used to consider waste. "Recycled plastic soda bottles are actually being used to make fibers that are used in making clothing, for example," Anastas point out.

Worldwide, more than 14 million metric tons of polystyrene are produced annually, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Most of this ends up in landfills. Although polystyrene represents less than 1 percent of solid waste generated in the United States, at least.

2.3 million tons of it is dumped in U.S. landfills each year. Only 1 percent of polystyrene waste is currently recycled, the authors of the study note.

The American Chemical Society — the world’s largest scientific society — is a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress and a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.