Student-inventor dissolves environmental problem while adhering to Christian ecology values

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org
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Sydney Gralike stirred a gooey substance on a piece of Styrofoam. "It's dissolving a little bit," said her assistant, Christina Yepez.

Sydney, a 13-year-old Parish School of Religion student at Assumption Parish in south St. Louis County, is helping to solve one of the world's pressing environmental problems.

Sydney, Christina and four other students from Sperreng Middle School, working with residents and staff of Friendship Village, created the Eco Bin — a metal bin that dissolves Styrofoam when mixed with water and a nontoxic chemical made from orange peels. The EcoGlOo project resulted in the creation of an environmentally friendly adhesive. The project was entered into the White House Science Fair and the girls from the Lindbergh School District were singled out for a discussion at the event with President Barack Obama.

"I'm really happy that we could find a solution for such a big problem," Sydney said. At Friendship Village, she and her friends learned that the retirement community was disposing of 20,000 Styrofoam cups — which take 500 years to decompose in a landfill — every month. It's not unusual for large cafeteria operations to use a similar amount of Styrofoam each month, taking up large amounts of space in a landfill. A stack of Styrofoam the size of a refrigerator was dissolved by the Eco Bin into two cups of the gooey substance.

Sydney, who recently was part of the seventh-grade Sacrament of Confirmation class at Assumption, put the achievement in the context of her faith. "God created the earth for us and He created all of us — all this for us so we could take care of it," she said.

Taking care of God's creation is a special responsibility of Catholics, as Pope Francis pointed out last year in his encyclical, "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home," which presents the theological basis and a moral imperative for protecting the earth and its inhabitants.

Sydney wants to find other solutions to environmental problems as well. That effort will get a boost if the youngsters are successful in obtaining patents on their two inventions, Sydney said.

Sindhu Bala, 12; Ellie Englund, 12; Julianna Jones, 13; Reagan Mattison, 12; Christina and Sydney, members of the same Girl Scout troop at their school who call themselves the Blockheads, wanted to help the retirement community be more environmentally friendly. In a surprise twist, after finding a way to dissolve the Styrofoam, the girls discovered that the gooey substance created by the mixture is a strong adhesive. They have bottled and branded the substance, naming it "EcoGlOo" and marketing it to their school and others for art projects. These creations have earned the girls state accolades and the chance to compete for the Global Innovation Award at FIRST Lego League Nationals.

It began as part of a FIRST LEGO League Trash Trek project which asks students to identify a problem with trash, design an innovative solution and share that with others. Julianna's mom, Joanna Jones-Raymond, works at Friendship Village and the sixth- and seventh-grade girls started there. They even visited a landfill to see the challenges of handling waste firsthand.

Friendship Village resident Ellie Kaiser met with the students, telling them what was being recycled. She pointed to the Styrofoam cups as the biggest problem, creating almost 200 pounds of waste a month. Kaiser has used the end product of the girls' invention — the adhesive — and testifies to its effectiveness. The students "have done a kindness to our world," she said.

Sydney's mom, Ryan, said the girls tackled a problem in which people said there was no solution. "For them to put their heads together and and come up with something when other people failed is incredible," she said.

Their hard work — done while juggling other schoolwork, sports and other commitments — shows positive signs of what the next generation can accomplish, she added. 

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