Olympus Jr. High team wins $10,000 with their microplastics filter
May 11, 2020 11:44AM
By Heather Lawrence
Science teacher JoAnne Brown at Olympus Jr. High helps student George Eagleston determine whether an item turned in to the school was made with harmful microplastics. (Heather Lawrence/City Journals)
By Heather Lawrence | [email protected]
A team of seven students at Olympus Jr. High call themselves the Fanplastics, and they’ve learned to make plastic without petroleum. They’ve also created a water filter for harmful microplastics, and started a pledge to encourage their peers and neighbors to dispose of microplastics properly. Their projects, supervised by science teacher JoAnne Brown, won $10,000 in the national Lexus Eco Challenge competition.
“The team addressed the issue of microplastics – tiny degraded strings/particles of plastic waste. Water contaminated with microplastics increases the probability of many diseases, including cancer,” Brown said.
The Fanplastics team is part of Brown’s advanced class, Genius Hour. “They do one extracurricular project each year. We’ve entered the Lexus Eco Challenge before and had success,” Brown said.
Brown’s son Nevyn Brown is on the team along with Grace Taylor, Eleanor Delaney, George Eagleston, Emily Berkson, Zack Allred and Julia Bennett.
The competition is a two-part challenge over the course of the school year. Teams that win the first part, which the Fanplastics did, advance to the second part.
“They were awarded $10,000. The students get $7,000 ($1,000 each), the school gets $2,000 and $1,000 goes to our classroom,” Brown said.
“We wanted to work with renewable energy resources. We focused on plastic single-use water bottles. We wanted to somehow create renewable energy with it. We used them to make wind turbines,” Allred said.
“We partnered with Vivint Solar and stored the energy from the wind turbines. We charged a phone with the power from it!” Allred said.
Then the team took it a step further. “We made our own bioplastic. We used glycerin, cornstarch, water and vinegar. We put marigold seeds in it, and it started to break down after 24 hours. We had made a plastic that was biodegradable,” Brown said.
“This was our challenge to larger industries that if we can do this, they can do this,” Brown said. They got in touch with Nelson Labs in Taylorsville, and talked with them about what they’d accomplished.
“We proved it’s possible to make plastic with things that aren’t fossil fuels. Most plastics are made from petroleum, so they’re a fossil fuel, but they also don’t break down at all. The Clean Water Act passed in 2015 banned microplastics. They were supposed to be gone by 2017, but with a new administration, there’s no one enforcing it,” Brown said.
Eagleston said microplastics are especially harmful. “They’re so small that they go right through the filters in the water treatment plant, so they end up in the water supply,” Eagleston said.
“A ton of makeup products have [microbeads], when most of the time they’re not necessary. The organic products aren’t as harmful. But those little beads you see in hand sanitizer, those dots inside, those are microbeads. They’re in toothpaste, ChapStick, exfoliants, sunscreen. The microbeads hold [the products] together,” Allred said.
The students tested several products to collect data on quantities. They found microplastics in tap water and bottled water, and often the bottled water had more.
“The flimsy, crinkly water bottles are the worst. The plastic is so thin that it degrades very easily. If you leave a water bottle in the sun, don’t put it back in the fridge. You should throw it away because there’s plastic in that water,” Berkson said.
The Fanplastics team designed a filter that would get rid of microbeads in water. After a lot of trial and error, they came up with a design of activated carbon, clean sand, aluminum mesh and coffee filters layered together in a polyvinyl chloride container and a recycled plastic water bottle.
Can’t do that at home? The team said it’s easy to make sure microplastics don’t end up in our water supply. “All you have to do is throw these away in a regular garbage bag, tie it up and it’s sealed off. It’s a closed system in the landfill, and it won’t get out into the water,” Brown said.
To encourage their peers, the Fanplastics passed out flyers and were planning a collection drive at the school and local library for items that contain microplastics. With the closure of schools, now they’re relying on a pledge people can take on their website to simply throw things away in a bag in the regular trash.
“On our website, people can click the ‘your impact’ section and take our pledge. You can also learn more about our project and why it’s important to reduce our use of plastics,” Allred said. The website is www.thefanplastics.weebly.com.