Turkey Teen Wins Prize for Making Plastic From Banana Peels

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Our next story is about a different sort of challenge, though it still involves finding better ways to use our natural resources. Sixteen-year-old Elif Bilgin from Istanbul, Turkey wanted to find an alternative to traditional petroleum-based plastic production. She came up with a way to develop a bio-plastic from, get this, discarded banana peels. Her project won a 2013 "Science in Action" award and a $50,000 prize from Scientific American. So, Elif, congratulations.

Elif Bilgin: Thank you.

Werman: And thanks for coming on the program. How did you come up with this idea — taking bananas and turning them into bio-plastic?

Bilgin: I read a paper about how to make bio-plastic out of potatoes and the starch that was extracted from that and I thought maybe I could find another substance that I could use to make the plastic which was not something we consume everyday but actually we throw away everyday. And the banana peel was a really good example for that.

Werman: So how do you do it? How do you take this banana peel and get the starch out of it and turn it into plastic?

Bilgin: I actually just take the banana peel and then dip it into a special solution which has some chemicals in it, it's called sodium metabisulfite solution, and then I boil the banana peels and then actually mash them into some sort of a puree or a paste, and then I take twenty-five milliliters of this paste, add sodium hydroxide and hydrochloric acid and also glycerine and then I bake it and it becomes plastic.

Werman: And you did this like in your mom's kitchen or something?

Bilgin: I did part of this in my mom's kitchen, part of it at a laboratory and, well, that was it.

Werman: And like any good scientist, you had to experience the disappointment of trial-and-error, but you finally landed on a formula that lasts for a while. Can you take banana plastic and turn it into an everyday item for example? A plastic water bottle? Are you there yet?

Bilgin: I didn't try with water bottles, but I actually insulated a copper cable.

Werman: Wow.

Bilgin: And also if you bake it into a mold it can be actually used in the making of cosmetic prostheses.

Werman: And how long does this plastic last? 'Cuz I know some plastics, they get a little brittle after a while, they fall apart. What's the duration on your plastic?

Bilgin: I'm not sure exactly because it's a funny story. I didn't think that I was gonna be chosen, so I threw the plastics away after like three months. So I'm not really sure, but it stays intact for a long time.

Werman: All right. It lasted long enough for you to get the prize from Scientific American. You know, just the other day I was wondering about plastics, I wonder about things like that, and was really surprised to find out that plastics actually predate mass fossil fuel use by centuries. Like even in the middle ages they were making plastics out of bio-proteins like blood and egg yolk. So are you reclaiming the plastics of years past?

Bilgin: Well, we polluted the earth long enough and I think we should go back to the old ways so we can actually reclaim a part of it.

Werman: So you won $50,000 for this. What are you going to do with the prize money?

Bilgin: I'm not sure, but my main focus will be to further develop my projects.

Werman: Keep on working with banana peel plastics, bio-plastic?

Bilgin: Yeah.

Werman: Elif, I'm just curious how a sixteen-year-old young woman got into experimenting with plastics and I'm sure a lot of other people around are more interested in who the latest pop star is and where Justin Bieber is flying next.

Bilgin: Yeah. Well, I really love science and I've been attending a school for gifted students for the last six years and they support you a lot and encourage you to do scientific research. And I've been in that program for six years and I've been very interested in science.

Werman: What do you think the big oil companies will have to say about banana peel plastics?

Bilgin: Oh my. I'm not sure.

Werman: Sixteen-year-old Elif Bilgin from Istanbul who has won the 2013 "Science in Action" award. Thank you very much for your time.

Bilgin: Thanks for having me.