Project Management

Trash Talk

From the People, Planet, Profits & Projects Blog
by ,

About this Blog


View Posts By:

Richard Maltzman
Dave Shirley

Recent Posts

A Pearl of a Project

NiFTy or Nasty?

Watt is Success?

2nd-ary Risk

Rice and Shine

Sometimes a walk through the neighborhood on ‘trash day’ is just what you need.

I was planning my next blog post, and deciding on several topics, amongst which was a TED talk on Styrofoam recycling, when I encountered this:

And then a few dozen paces later, this:

Most of us are familiar with the concept of a Science Project.  If not, let NASA tell you about them here.  And of course, for us as project managers, the more important of those two words is (you guessed it!) project.  This TED talk was running through my mind and when I saw these two instances of Styrofoam being sent to landfill, minutes away from my own home, I decided this would have to be the next topic.

Please, do yourself a favor and watch this young man, Ashton Cofer, present at TED – it’s only 5 minutes, but 5 minutes well-spent.  You can even take some presentation tips from this (at the time) 14-year-old 8th-grader from Ohio, as he does a tremendous job conveying the presentation, using comedy, great timing, and illustrations at just the right time to accentuate his points.

As project managers, we’re often faced with the situation in which our projects seem like they’re in a hopeless situation.  And sometimes, it’s just a matter of perseverance – ironically, the name of a MUCH LARGER science project.  This young man and his team persevered and came up with a method to make Styrofoam re-usable as activated carbon, effectively preventing the substance from filling up landfill and giving it another life.

The story of this effort and the science behind it is featured in this story from Scientific American.

 From the article:

For the past five years Scientific American has partnered with Google to award the Scientific American Innovator Award, which honors an experimental project that addresses a question regarding the natural world. This year's award went to three eighth graders from Ohio who were particularly disgusted with the amount of Styrofoam (polystyrene foam) trash they saw in their everyday lives—the material accounts for 25 percent of landfill space, and is exceptionally difficult to recycle or reprocess.

After 50 hours of experimental work, the team successfully converted the polystyrene into carbon with over 75 percent efficiency by heating the material to 120 degrees C. They then treated the carbon with a set of chemicals to increase the surface area of the material, and tested it against commercially available water filters. Their results showed that their carbon successfully filtered many of the same compounds that commercials filters remove from water.

This was five years ago.  Readers of this blog know that I preach the idea of looking beyond the end of a project – past the ‘ribbon-cutting ceremony’ (or in this case, the receipt of a trophy) and measure success by what has happened after the project’s product is ‘in service’.  I decided that I would practice what I preach – look beyond the project’s end date and see what success Ashton and his teams’ idea had had.

Not surprisingly, Ashton is at Stanford University and has founded a couple of companies, one of which is StyroFilter (see their website here).  The inventors have made this a non-profit.  Watch this video, too also short, and inspiring. I actually got a couple of (positive) shivers from this - no kidding.  It makes me want to delegate more innovation to 8th graders! 

I’m interested in your reaction to this science project, the way the students handle themselves, and the lessons we, as (theoretically) more grown-up project managers can learn from them!

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: March 26, 2021 01:23 PM | Permalink

Comments (2)

Please login or join to subscribe to this item

Great idea !!

Please Login/Register to leave a comment.


"Very deep. You should send that into Reader's Digest, they've got a page for people like you."

- Douglas Adams