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In a quest to transform plastic into something biodegradable, two students at Hollister High School discovered a way to create biodegradable flowerpots, under the guidance of instructor Richard White. The students will debut the pots at the school’s May 7 plant sale.
SBJ: How did this project get started?
Richard White: A science fair project. They wanted to make biodegradable plastic. We tried different things. We tried melting and combining it with biodegradable content. The problem was, we kept burning it because we had to get it so hot to get it in the liquid state. We finally hit upon using cooking oil treated with methanol to make biodiesel. We put plastic in biodiesel, added Borax and heated it. That did it. Borax is sodium borate solution. It helps break up the cross linkages of that PET molecule. We’re thinking Borax is helping to break up that chain into its individual pieces.
SBJ: How did students Hailey Greene and Kade Devore develop their recipe?
White: It took about two months of trying different things. We started in November, and by Christmas break, we were starting to get results. When we got back, we perfected it to where they could actually make flowerpots out of it. Once we figured out how to make it biodegradable, we thought, why don’t we make flowerpots people can plant in the ground and they’ll dissolve away and the plant will remain. Once we had that, we had to add something to give it some form. They wanted it to be made out of all waste – grease, coffee grounds and shredded paper. That gave it the structure it needed to make flowerpots.
SBJ: How long does it take to create the biodegradable flowerpots?
White: I’m going to say four or five hours of heating it. We put about 15 bottles into one flowerpot. It takes a while to heat that oil up and feed the bottles into it. There’s probably a faster a way if we had better equipment. We can get two flowerpots out of that, depending on how thick the bottles are.
SBJ: Where are they finding the time to manufacture them?
White: The cooking down part of it, we get that going in the science lab, and every once in a while, we’ll pop in and add a couple of bottles to it. Then we add shredded paper to it and knead it like dough and press it into the shape of flowerpot. We’re trying to get a bunch made before the spring sale.
SBJ: How do the students stay motivated?
White: I’ve learned the more hands-on elements you can add to it, the more involved they’ll get. I generally don’t have trouble teaching conservation issues to these kids. They seem to understand that.
SBJ: This could turn into a real moneymaker. Do you have any plans to scale up?
White: We’re talking about it. Right now, we’re just trying to get through the May sale and the next couple of months. We have 20 to 25 made now. If we can get 100 flowerpots made by May, that’s about 1,500 water bottles that never made it to the landfill. I don’t know where we’ll go from here. I just want to get kids passionate about conservation and these two, they’re so passionate, they may go to college for it.
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