Ashton Cofer

A young inventor's plan to recycle Styrofoam

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0:11

It was just an ordinary Saturday. My dad was outside mowing the lawn, my mom was upstairs folding laundry, my sister was in her room doing homework and I was in the basement playing video games. And as I came upstairs to get something to drink, I looked out the window and realized that there was something that I was supposed to be doing, and this is what I saw.

0:34

No, this wasn't my family's dinner on fire. This was my science project. Flames were pouring out, smoke was in the air and it looked like our wooden deck was about to catch fire. I immediately started yelling. My mom was freaking out, my dad ran around to put out the fire and of course my sister started recording a Snapchat video.

0:56

(Laughter)

0:58

This was just the beginning of my team's science project. My team is composed of me and three other students who are here in the audience today. We competed in FIRST LEGO League which is an international LEGO robotics competition for kids, and in addition to a robotics game, we also worked on a separate science project, and this was the project that we were working on.

1:19

So the idea for this project all started when a few months earlier, a couple of my teammates took a trip to Central America and saw beaches littered with Styrofoam, or expanded polystyrene foam. And when they came back and told us about it, we really started thinking about the ways in which we see Styrofoam every day. Get a new flat-screen TV? You end up with a block of Styrofoam bigger than the TV itself. Drink a cup of coffee? Well, those Styrofoam coffee cups are sure going to add up. And where do all these items go after their one-time use? Since there aren't any good existing solutions for used Styrofoam, almost all of them end up right in the landfill, or the oceans and beaches, taking over 500 years to degrade. And in fact, every year, the US alone produces over two billion pounds of Styrofoam, filling up a staggering 25 percent of landfills.

2:08

So why do we have these ghost accumulations of Styrofoam waste? Why can't we just recycle them like many plastics? Well, simply put, recycled polystyrene is too expensive and potentially contaminated, so there is very little market demand for Styrofoam that has to be recycled. And as a result, Styrofoam is considered a nonrenewable material, because it is neither feasible nor viable to recycle polystyrene. And in fact, many cities across the US have even passed ordinances that simply ban the production of many products containing polystyrene, which includes disposable utensils, packing peanuts, takeout containers and even plastic beach toys, all products that are very useful in today's society. And now France has become the first country to completely ban all plastic utensils, cups and plates.

2:56

But what if we could keep using Styrofoam and keep benefiting from its cheap, lightweight, insulating and excellent packing ability, while not having to suffer from the repercussions of having to dispose of it? What if we could turn it into something else that's actually useful? What if we could make the impossible possible?

3:15

My team hypothesized that we could use the carbon that's already in Styrofoam to create activated carbon, which is used in almost every water filter today. And activated carbon works by using very small micropores to filter out contaminants from water or even air.

3:31

So we started out by doing a variety of heating tests, and unfortunately, we had many failures. Literally, nothing worked. Besides my dad's grill catching on fire, most of our samples vaporized into nothing, or exploded inside expensive furnaces, leaving a horribly sticky mess. In fact, we were so saddened by our failures that we almost gave up.

3:56

So why did we keep trying when all the adults said it was impossible? Well, maybe it's because we're kids. We don't know any better. But the truth is, we kept trying because we thought it was still possible. We knew that if we were successful, we would be helping the environment and making the world a better place. So we kept trying and failing and trying and failing. We were so ready to give up.

4:21

But then it happened. With the right temperatures, times and chemicals, we finally got that successful test result showing us that we had created activated carbon from Styrofoam waste. And at that moment, the thing that had been impossible all of a sudden wasn't. It showed us that although we had many failures at the beginning, we were able to persevere through them to get the test results that we wanted. And moreover, not only were we able to create activated carbon for purifying water, but we were also able to reduce Styrofoam waste, solving two global problems with just one solution.

4:53

So from then on, we were inspired to take our project further, performing more tests to make it more effective and testing it in real world situations. We then proceeded to receive funding from the NSTA's eCYBERMISSION STEM-in-Action program sponsored by the US Army, as well as FIRST Global Innovation Awards sponsored by XPRIZE. And we were also honored with the Scientific American Innovator Award from Google Science Fair. And using these funds, we plan to file a full patent on our process and to continue to work on our project.

5:23

So yes, although we started with catching my dad's grill on fire and failing so many times that we almost quit, it was well worth it when we look back at it now. We took a problem that many people said was impossible and we made it possible, and we persevered when it looked like nothing that we did would work. We learned that you can't have success without a little, or a lot, of failure.

5:46

So in the future, don't be afraid if your grill goes up in flames, because you never know when your idea might just catch fire.

5:54

Thank you.

5:56

(Applause)

From packing peanuts to disposable coffee cups, each year the US alone produces some two billion pounds of Styrofoam — none of which can be recycled. Frustrated by this waste of resources and landfill space, Ashton Cofer and his science fair teammates developed a heating treatment to break down used Styrofoam into something useful. Check out their original design, which won both the FIRST LEGO League Global Innovation Award and the Scientific American Innovator Award from Google Science Fair.

About the speaker
Ashton Cofer · Youth inventor

Ashton Cofer and his FIRST Robotics team won the Google Science Fair for developing a process to convert Styrofoam waste into activated carbon for purifying water.

Ashton Cofer and his FIRST Robotics team won the Google Science Fair for developing a process to convert Styrofoam waste into activated carbon for purifying water.