While most of us spent our student years working a little and partying quite a bit, Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao have used their time for something more productive: developing bacteria that can break down ocean-bound plastic waste. Having first worked on the problem in high school, they have since filed two patents, founded a company, and raised about $400,000. They're still only 22 and 21 years old.
The students recently picked up the latest in several awards: the $30,000 Perlman Grand Prize at the 2016 Wharton Business Plan Competition. That and four other prizes from Wharton: the Wharton Social Impact Prize, the Gloeckner Undergraduate Award, the Michelson People’s Choice Award, and the Committee Award for Most "Wow Factor." They're the first undergraduates to win the Perlman, and the first students to win all five awards, according to the University of Pennsylvania (home to Wharton business school).
The reason for all the fuss is obvious. Plastic pollution in the oceans is a massive problem, and Wang and Yao have the beginnings of a viable solution for at least part of it. They have a prototype for breaking down polystyrene into CO2 and water, and they see their technology being used in two ways—first, for landfill and beach cleanups, and, second, to create a secondary product to be used in textile manufacturing.
"It's going to be nearly impossible to get people to stop using plastic," says Wang. "We need real technology to break it down. Everything in nature should be biodegradable."
The process first uses a solvent to dissolve the plastic, then enzymes catalyze depolymerization of its base chemicals, breaking it down into the more manageable compounds. Wang envisages sending mobile clean-up stations—either a truck or a floating vessel—with a 150,000 liter bio-digester onboard. Workers could then load up the tanks with polystyrene and wait for the waste to degrade. The aim is to get the process down to as little as 24 hours. (Other processes, including these mealworms, take longer and don't break down the whole waste stream.)
"The idea is there's no need to collect the plastic and ship it to some centralized location. This plastic is very lightweight, so transporting even one kilogram of it would take a huge amount of volume and be very unsustainable in terms of transportation," Wang says.
Wang and Yao's company is called BioCellection. They aim to start field-testing this summer, hopefully in China, and to finalize a commercially viable process within two years. Wang hopes to remove about nine grams of plastic per liter of bacteria. She estimates that each 150,000 liter container of bacteria will cost about $20,000.
Between finishing her studies at Wharton and setting up the company, Wang isn't getting much sleep. I called her a little later than we'd arranged and found she's been napping in the spare moments. But BioCellection seems like a good thing to be losing sleep over: We badly need to find ways to break down all the stray plastic out there.