It can take a plastic foam cup 500 to 1,000 years — or longer — to biodegrade.

Keerthin Karthikeyan refused to wait that long.

Keerthin, a 14-year-old Life Scout from Troop 45 of Oxford, Miss., discovered an innovative new method for recycling a substance so environmentally harmful that it has been banned in dozens of cities.

He’s turning this waste material, which Keerthin calls “one of the deadliest things humanity has ever created,” into a sustainable product with numerous applications.

For his efforts, Keerthin won a Silver Medal at last month’s Genius Olympiad International Project Competition in New York.

But here’s my favorite part. Keerthin’s inspiration for this potentially Earth-changing development was his time camping, hiking and building fires as a Scout in the Yocona Area Council.

“Scouting has helped me become more aware of nature and my surroundings,” he says. “Otherwise, I would not have realized how catastrophic Styrofoam pollution is to the Earth.”

How it began

It all started at a picnic with his family.

Two years ago, Keerthin finished eating an orange and placed the peels into a plastic foam cup. When he collected his trash and prepared to leave, Keerthin noticed some unexplained scratches inside the cup.

Something clicked inside Keerthin’s brain, and he began to examine how oil from citrus fruits will dissolve plastic foam.

While researching other ways to dissolve this foam, he came across the idea of charring it like firewood.

How Scouting helped

This, naturally, is where the Scouting connection comes in.

Keerthin knew from his time with Troop 45 that it was possible to make charcoal, a lightweight black form of carbon, from wood. You simply char the wood in a low-oxygen environment.

Keerthin wondered whether he could char plastic foam in the same way. He tried it, and it worked, creating a black substance he calls Styro-Carbon.

Carbon has nearly limitless uses — it can whiten your teeth, treat emergency room overdoses and purify water.

It’s that last application that intrigued Keerthin the most.

“During hiking trips, we purified dirty water using carbon filters,” he says. “I understood the importance of carbon filters.”

Scouting and STEM

When people think of Scouting, their minds conjure images of backpacking through lush valleys and ascending rugged mountaintops. They don’t always think of STEM — science, technology, engineering and math.

Keerthin says it’s time for that to change.

“They view Scouts as outdoors, while they view STEM as in a laboratory or having to do with robotics,” Keerthin says. “If you dig deeper, though, you can realize that a whole section of STEM has to do with outdoor science.”

He suggests that his fellow Scouts invite scientists to their troop meetings or campouts to solidify this connection.

Doing this, he hypothesizes, will “create a bridge between Scouting and STEM — the bridge being the outdoors.”

Scouting is ‘one of the greatest decisions’ he’s made

Keerthin says he joined Scouting because someone came to his school and “gave us a cool flashlight.”

“But, in retrospect, it was one of the greatest decisions I’ve ever made,” Keerthin says.

Beyond enjoying time outdoors, Keerthin appreciates the leadership skills he’s learning in Scouting.

At summer camp this year, Keerthin served as acting senior patrol leader — experience that built his confidence and ability to lead a group of his peers.

“I had to make sure we all left for flag ceremony and breakfast in the morning, made sure all the Scouts left for classes early enough to get to their respective places on time, and made sure everything was neat and orderly for camp inspection,” he says. “We were proud to earn the ‘Best Troop Award’ this year.”

Those leadership skills also served Keerthin well during his Eagle Scout service project. He built a flag retirement box at the Oxford, Miss., police station.

Thanks to this soon-to-be Eagle Scout, local residents can place worn-out American flags inside the box, and Keerthin will ensure that they are retired in the proper way.

Thanks to Ty Robinson, Yocona Area Council commissioner, for the post idea.

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