ULV Collab/Human Practices
To verify that our project is practical and safe for real world application we talked to many professionals as well as individuals from our community. We started our project by collaborating with Marcus Eriksen, an environmental scientist who has done research on plastic pollution and the impact it has on our environment. We pitched our research ideas to him and he was able to guide us in the following steps we should take. Taking his advice into consideration we then were able to get into contact with a local water treatment facility where we took a tour as well as familiarize ourselves with the process of the treatment plant. We were able to receive water samples from the treatment plant, but unfortunately did not detect any plastics in the water. From there, we decided to visit a wastewater treatment facility, where we believed we would find a concentration of microplastics in the water. At the wastewater treatment facility we met Bellanira Lynch, a microbiologist at the treatment plant. Bellanira gave us insight on how we can apply our research into an actual treatment facility, and some of the safety restrictions we should take into consideration when creating our mathematical design. To get input from the community, we participated in the international beach cleanup event. We were able to talk about our project to the event coordinators, a professor, and sustainable designers and receive their feedback on what they thought about our project. Aside from talking to the community we successfully participated in the beach cleanup and collected 5lbs. of trash. .
Silver Medal Criterion #3
Our initial project focus was directed towards degrading microplastics that were currently located in the ocean. We proposed our research idea to Marcus Eriksen, an environmental scientist who has done research on plastic pollution and the impact it has on our ocean. He suggested we take a step back and degrade the plastic at the source and prevent it from entering the ocean entirely. He then further advised we look into a water treatment facility to determine the concentration of microplastics found in the water. Taking his advice into consideration, we visited the Three Valleys Water Treatment facility, where we were able to take a tour and familiarize ourselves with the treatment process of the plant. Unfortunately, there was no detection of microplastics in the water because the water used for the water treatment facilities is collected from natural springs. They advised us that we look into a wastewater treatment facility because this is were all of our household sewage is treated and converted into recycled water. This next step led us to Bellanira Lynch, a microbiologist who worked for a nearby wastewater treatment facility. Bellanira also gave us a tour of the facility as well as water samples from every stage of the treatment process. By visiting this wastewater treatment facility we were able to conclude that in this area that we live in, an insignificant amount of microplastics is released into the environment. However, in other countries around the world, a significant amount of microplastics leave the treatment facilities and are released into the environment. Bellanira also told us that a more pressing global issue that we are facing is the release of microfibers from clothing into the water. With this information we were inspired design a mathematical model that could be used in both a wastewater treatment facility, and in household items to prevent further release of microplastics and microfibers into the ocean. We also had a second video call with Bellanira in which she advised us on some safety precautions we had to be aware of as well as how efficient she believed our project could be if it were integrated into an actual wastewater treatment plant. To get input from the community, we participated in the international beach cleanup event. Here we were able to talk about our project to the event coordinators, a professor, and sustainable designers and receive their feedback on what they thought about our project. Aside from talking to the community we successfully participated in the beach cleanup and collected 5lbs. of trash. Our project is important to the sustainability of our environment, because by preventing microplastics from entering our ocean. Research has shown that marine life often mistake microplastics as a food source and consequently ingest them. This is a great cause for concern because microplastics contain harmful toxins and the ingestion of them can disrupt their metabolic pathway by causing a physical accumulation of microplastics in their digestive tract. The ingestion of these toxins can then accumulate in the tissues of the animals that eat them, and the toxins then travel through the food chain, eventually being passed on to humans. With the mathematical design of the RAM pump and the addition of our GMO our project will help to further prevent microplastics from entering the ocean.
Gold Medal Criterion #1
Directions Discussion with Microplastic expertSoon after, we reviewed the stance of our project idea with an expert on microplastic, Mr. Marcus Erikson, who recently gave a talk about ocean plastic at our university. He and his colleagues had been rafting and researching on the ocean for many years now, and he agreed with our concerns regarding our project. Thus, he suggested that we tackle the problem a little more upstream instead, specifically at the wastewater treatment plants that have been reported to receive tons of microfibers from our households. We believe that this idea would be more manageable and efficient in terms of preventing the microplastics at their source.
Learning more about the Wastewater PlantsTherefore, we pursued our newly reformed goal by reading up articles about wastewater plants contribution to microplastic release and visited two local wastewater treatment plants. As different plants have different equipments and stages, we first decided to find out if there was any stage that would enable us to install our filter efficiently and safely. During the tour we learned a lot about the stages and operations that go behind the plant. Using mainly gravity force, this branch receives water from the ground and flows into the entire treatment system through gravity into a hydrogenerator filter followed by a flocculation tank, settling tank, filtration tank, and disinfection tank before being distributed out into analyzers and finally the reservoirs. We talked to Bellanira Lynch about any concerns regarding microplastic and we realized that it was not the main concern there, as the water source was from ground water instead of households. However, they raised a concern about their final byproduct, called the “cake”, from the entire purification process which they have no use of it at all. He suggested that, perhaps, we could either test it microplastic or turn it into a fertilizer for household uses or farms. Although, the plant was not what we were exactly looking for, we used the knowledge and familiarity with a local water treatment plant to visit another wastewater treatment facility, called The San Jose Water Reclamation Plant that treats wastewater from homes, washing machines, commercial, and industrial processes and, especially, has published an article that investigated microplastic content in their own site. This facility, again, uses a three-step process of primary treatment to remove large particles, secondary treatment to biodegrade organic materials, and tertiary treatment to eliminate fine particulates. Their secondary treatment or aeration tank was where their microbes are present before they finally settle to the bottom, which would be the most suitable stage for our PET-degrading bacteria to also be present and to have enough time and capacity to degrade microplastic particles before entering the third disinfection stage. However, after our discussion with the Microbiologist at the facility and reading the article, we found out that water samples from each treatment stage on which were tested in lab for the amounts and properties of microplastic, shows insignificant amount of microplastic or microfibers in every stage in contrast to what we had found in journal articles for water treatment plants in general to be one of the leading sources to microplastic release.
Bench PlanningAs we found out about this study to be a contradiction to our project plans, we had already requested water samples of each different stage in order to start working on our bench modeling for the wastewater treatment stage and the many bench testing that follows, as well as essential safety planning on how to contain the E. coli from affecting the other microbes and the final disinfected water. Soon enough, we began to review our directions again. Are wastewater treatment facilities one of the sources of microplastic release? According to "Primary Microplastics in the Oceans: A Global Evaluation of Sources", yes, due to its small size and convenient use which is found in many personal care products and synthetic textile clothing. More importantly, facilities in different countries have varying degrees of contribution, and not all plants are expected to have significant content of microplastic (Boucher). We thought it would not be practical for our team’s goal to target just a number of wastewater treatment plants in our vicinity and reach that do not have much concern with microplastic as the many
Community EngagementTo have a better understanding of what the general community thought about our project, we participated in the 2018 annual International Coastal Cleanup. By participating in this event we were able to talk about our project to the event coordinators, a professor, and sustainable designers and receive their feedback and any critiques they had on our project. Most of the critiques received from them were concerning the safety and containment of our GMO. In response to this, we explained how we plan to integrate our RAM pump with our GMO into waste water treatment facilities as well as integrate it into common household appliances such as a laundry machine and are still looking into the safetySharing our project with the community gave us a good sense of how aware people were about microplastic pollution, as well as being able spread awareness about the field of synthetic biology and how it can contribute to society. Apart from this, we also actively participated in the cleanup and were able to successfully collect five pounds of trash.
Best Integrated Human Practices Special Prize
Many of us might have heard about either the Great Pacific garbage patch or the ever-lasting amount of tiny toxic plastic particles that float around and sink into the ocean and get consumed by marine animals and ultimately us humans. As these plastic pollutants increasingly continue to get dumped into our ocean, our professor and we came up with the idea of placing a RAM pump in wastewater treatment facilities as well as household appliances such as laundry machines. The RAM pump would allow water to freely cycle through it, and contain our GMO that would capture PET plastic particles using Cutinase enzyme and degrade them into non-toxic byproducts using E.Coli with PETase enzyme. With this in mind, our project was designed to be used in multiple settings. The RAM pump is specifically designed to function without the use of an external power source, making our project ideal to be used in areas where it may be difficult to have access to electricity. Although microplastics are not of great concern in North America, studies have shown that countries associated with a lower socioeconomic status tend to produce the highest concentration of microplastics. In this way, our project was designed to be conveniently implemented virtually anywhere it is needed, giving it the potential to impact communities around the world. Some of the ethical considerations that came to mind when deciding where we would implement our design was, how can we keep our GMO from being released into the environment? To answer this question we collaborated with Bellanira Lynch, a microbiologist at the waste water treatment facility. We decided that our RAM pump could be integrated in the aeration step of the treatment. During this step natural organisms are added to this process in order to break down organic material, which makes this step ideal to add our GMO. We also chose to place it in this step because it occurs before the final disinfection step, where any bacteria or organisms that were released are terminated by either chlorine, UV, Ozone, or hydrogen peroxide. The decision to integrate our project during this step made us go back and design our RAM pump in a way that would effectively flow water through this system, giving the GMO enough time to effectively degrade the microplastic particles.