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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Whiz Kid Invents New Process for Recycling Plastics

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood talks with high school senior Forrest Anderson about the plastics recycling process he created. Anderson won first place in a Westinghouse Science Talent Competition for his invention, which can recycle a mix of plastic types and creates no toxins or solid waste.


CURWOOD: It's hard to make news about recycling any more, and making news wasn't what Forrest Anderson had in mind when he headed for his chemistry lab a while ago. He just wanted to tackle one of recycling's more vexing problems. How can one turn unsorted plastic trash, the mix of containers and packages we throw away every day, into useful chemicals, without having to separate each kind of plastic beforehand? And Mr. Anderson may have succeeded. That's an attention-getter already, but consider this: Forrest Anderson isn't a researcher with a company or a university. He's a high school senior from Helena, Montana. And his invention of a plastics recycling process won him the top prize in this year's Westinghouse Science Talent Competition: a $40,000 college scholarship. To say the least, Forrest Anderson's entry wasn't your ordinary high school science project.

ANDERSON: Essentially, the process that I've designed and developed recycles polyethylene, polypropylene, PVC, and polystyrene, as a mixture, and recycles those into oils and gases. The gases in particular can be used as fuels to fuel the process itself, and some of which are petrochemicals, which have use for plastics and other materials.

CURWOOD: Now is this burning? Is this incineration?

ANDERSON: No, this isn't incineration. This is actually decomposition. There's very little oxygen available for these things to actually burn. So rather, they just break down as a result of having so much thermal energy.

CURWOOD: In other words, heat. Anderson says there are no toxic residues, or even solid waste left over from his process.

ANDERSON: Usually you get a carbon char or coke, but that doesn't necessarily have to be thrown away, because by addition of some water vapor, you can actually convert that to what's know as sin gas, or hydrogen and carbon monoxide, both of which have fairly significant energy fuel values.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering why American industry hasn't thought of this before. Why an 18-year-old man from Montana would come up with this as part of a high school science project and not American plastics industry workers.

ANDERSON: Well, I think there is probably a lot of research being done. But thus far, no single process has been developed to the point where it can be applied industrially and at a commercial scale.

CURWOOD: Your idea for the Westinghouse Science Talent Competition is something that you're now seeking a patent for?

ANDERSON: Yeah. But, you know, that wasn't why I did the research. It wasn't for the financial aspects of developing a commercial process or product or anything like that. It was because I wanted the research experience, and I also wanted to address a problem in American society.

CURWOOD: It's been a pretty heady year for Anderson. Along with the Westinghouse prize, he won his state's wrestling crown. He occasionally finds time to go hiking, fishing, and rock climbing, but he says the best part of his senior year has been the time spent with his peers.

ANDERSON: Meeting the students and researchers that have been associated with these competitions and with these universities that I've had a chance to visit. And it's really exciting to think that I'm going to be in this kind of company, you know, in the coming years.

CURWOOD: Forrest Anderson graduates this spring from Helena High School in Helena, Montana. His invention of a process for recycling mixed plastics into oils, gases, and chemical feedstocks, won him this year's Westinghouse Science Talent Competition. He plans to attend Harvard.



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