Angelina Arora: The Indian-Australian teen finds a solution to single-use plastic
Written by: Charu Thakur
(July 24, 2022) A routine trip to a local grocery store made the then 11-year-old Angelina Arora committed to finding a better solution to single-use plastic. Seeing a huge number of plastic bags being carried out of the store made her understand their detrimental impact on the environment and led the Adelaide-based innovator on a quest to save Earth by finding biodegradable alternatives.
Having mulled over the possible solution for years, in Class 9 as a science project, she began experimenting with corn starch and potato starch to create a biodegradable bag, however, they dissolved in water. She then tried banana peels and other waste products, however, nothing proved successful. Her eureka moment came while sitting at a local fish and chips shop and staring at a pile of fish waste – including crab shells, prawn tails and fish heads. She packed a few kilos of the discarded shells and headed straight to her Sydney Girls High School science lab to start experimenting. Noticing similarities between prawn shells and plastic, she knew she could have found the answer. “I looked at prawns and thought what makes their shells look like plastic? Maybe I can take that out and use it some way and bind it to make a plastic-like material,” the Global Indian said in an interview.
Angelina Arora during an experiment
A budding scientist, Angelina extracted chitin, a carbohydrate from prawn shells, and converted it into chitosan which she later mixed with fibron, a protein found in silkworms. “It’s the same protein that spiders use to make webs. It’s very sticky. When you mix it with chitin it produces a fabric that is flexible and strong and exhibits all the properties you want in plastic,” she told the Sydney Morning Herald. The biodegradable plastic decomposes 1.5 million times faster than commercial plastics and completely breaks down within 33 days of its exposure to bacteria. Her success attracted the attention of scholars and scientists across Australia and even won her the Innovator to Market Award in the 2018 and BHP Billiton Foundation Science and Engineering Awards. Moreover, she received the fourth grand award at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, where the innovator competed against 1800 students from over 81 countries.
Angelina Arora with her biodegradable plastic
According to a new OECD report, only 9 percent of plastic waste is recycled globally while 22 percent is mismanaged. Though bans and taxes on single-use plastic exist in over 120 countries, not enough is being done to reduce pollution. And Angelina thinks that biodegradable plastic – which is low-cost, durable, and insoluble – is the need of the hour. She is keen to see every plastic in the world be made out of her biodegradable plastic. “While decomposing, this eco-friendly plastic made of prawn shells releases nitrogen which is very important for plant growth and immunity. Thus, it could be used for agriculture as well, and not just for packaging,” she told India Today.
The Flinders University student, who was the nominee for Young Australian of the Year in 2019, is hopeful that biodegradable alternatives like hers will contribute to cleaning up the environment, especially the ocean – a cause close to her heart.