When Luke Clay and his family visited Central America several years ago, they were stunned by the amount of plastic pollution they saw.
Styrofoam, in particular, seemed to be everywhere, degrading otherwise beautiful environments.
“It was overwhelming,” Clay, now 16, said in an interview with Scientific American. “What it told me was that governments make no priority to dispose of the stuff.”
Styrofoam, he learned, couldn’t be recycled like some other forms of plastic, and it can take up to 500 years to break down — hence why it takes up around 30% of global landfill space. So Clay, along with his friends Ashton Cofer and Julia Bray, decided to find a way to repurpose it.
Fast forward a few years, and the team began receiving awards left and right for their groundbreaking discovery. The trio of teenagers had figured out how to turn styrofoam waste into activated carbon, the primary ingredient in water filters, according to the Scientific American, which awarded the team the Innovators Award at the 2016 Google Science Fair.
After 50 hours of lab work, the team found the right combination of heat, duration, and chemicals, and managed to extract the carbon from styrofoam.
They managed to not only effectively dispose of styrofoam but found a cost-effective way to purify water — a process that could potentially help the more than 2.1 billion people that lack access to clean drinking water around the world.
“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,” Cofer said in a TED Talk on the breakthrough.
The team has applied for a patent and is currently working to commercialize the process. While the ultimate goal in the movement against plastic is to eliminate styrofoam, the three teens are showing that all the styrofoam currently in production or contaminating environments can be dealt with.
Other young people around the world are joining the fight against plastic waste.
Boyan Slat, a 23-year old inventor, is working to clean the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest marine accumulation of plastic debris in the world. A Girl Scout named Shelby O’Neil helped persuade Alaska Airlines to announce a ban on various single-use plastics. And Melati and Isabel Wijsen founded an organization called Bye Bye Plastic Bags to clean up plastic waste on beaches and other environments.
Read More: 7 Ways to Cut Junk Plastic From Your Life
Since 1950, 9.2 billion tons of plastic have been created, 6.3 billion tons of which have been thrown away, unlikely to ever be recycled, according to National Geographic. Each year, more than 8.8 million tons of plastic enter the world’s oceans, which is like emptying a garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean every minute.
The scale of plastic pollution is staggering. But for kids like Bray, Clay, and Cofer, sitting back and lamenting the impossibility of the challenge is not an option.
Global Citizen also campaigns to end the production of single-use plastics and you can take action on this issue here.