One of the more telling stories that has come to our attention in recent weeks was that of Elif Bilgin, a sixteen-year-old from Istanbul who is a finalist in the Google Science Fair 2013 via her Going Bananas! project (the winners are to be announced on 24th September, 02:00 London time). Through two years of intermittent experiments in her mother’s kitchen, Bilgin managed to manufacture a brand new form of bioplastics made from banana peel. This peel-based material is good enough to be used in prosthesis and cable insulation, supplanting petroleum-derived plastics in the process. Bilgin’s discovery has already bagged her the Scientific American Science in Action Prize (amongst other accolades) and propelled her to international stardom.
What we find most revealing about this development is that more than almost anything else we can think of, Bilgin’s work highlights some troubling facts about the lack of imagination and desire within most companies to make the world a better place. The fact that a teenage girl from a city which has not been renowned for its scientific potency since the eighteenth century has outthought an entire panoply of large multinationals – not least those in the energy, chemicals and materials sectors – underscores what we have thought about a lot of the world’s problems, particularly those relating to ecology and development: the solutions are there, but insane levels of institutional and societal myopia have kept them from being implemented.
The premise of Bilgin’s research is simple: existing bioplastics utilise substances that are, under normal circumstances, good for consumption, potatoes being the most obvious example. Conversely, banana peels – which have no obvious use beyond being accessories in somewhat predictable slapstick routines – are a genuine waste product just waiting to be transmogrified into something useful. Her motivation? To enable humanity to be in harmony with the only habitat we have. In Bilgin’s own words: ‘…we polluted the earth long enough and I think we should go back to the old ways so we can actually reclaim a part of it.’
Individuals and organisations should learn from Bilgin’s example: in an era when the normal channels for positively influencing society have been severely compromised and institutional sclerosis is the norm, the imagination and effort of one brilliant individual can nevertheless engender momentous change.