Ashton Cofer, Luke Clay, Julia Bray

Fighting Foam Waste with Recycled Filters

Ashton Cofer, Luke Clay, Julia Bray, USA The Scientific American Innovator Award, 13-15

Students Ashton, Julia, and Luke (14) were stunned to learn how much expanded polystyrene waste (like disposable foam cups) littered the beaches of Central America. Back at home in Columbus, OH, the group were also dismayed to find that the US alone produces millions of pounds of polystyrene foam annually. This material takes up a quarter of America’s landfills, and can take hundreds of years to degrade. Hoping to find a solution for recycling the material, the group’s research showed that polystyrene foam is so difficult and expensive to recycle that most communities don’t even make the effort to include it in their recycling efforts. Since expanded polystyrene consists of over 90% carbon, these young scientists put their heads together to see if they could find a cost-effective way to convert the material into something useful: carbon filters that can remove contaminants from polluted water. After hours of testing various chemicals to break down the waste into an effective filter, the trio hit the jackpot, producing a carbon filter that could significantly decrease polystyrene waste from any landfill and make water safe to drink.