In response to climate change and worldwide plastic pollution, attempts are being made to look at alternatives, including “organic plastics” made from plant materials.
Synthetic plastic is probably one of the most useful materials we have but it has caused great harm to the environment. The challenge is to make plant-based plastics that are durable, biodegradable and commercially viable.
Why use algae?
Algae bioplastics were first discovered when companies were exploring alternative sources of biofuels. Algae takes CO2 out of the atmosphere and releases oxygen molecules as a byproduct of the process of photosynthesis which turns the carbon molecules into starch.
The surface of the earth is mostly water and algae require no arable land, no pesticides to grow, and the feedstock is never-ending.
Single-use bioplastic products
Skipping Rock Labs
Based in London, they have developed a unique product named the Ooho, an edible water bottle. The water is enclosed in brown algae and calcium chloride (seaweed).
It is cheaper to produce than conventional plastic and it is biodegradable in about 4 – 6 weeks. Rodrigo Gonzales, co-founder of the startup, has the vision to make plastic packaging disappear.
David Coti created Algopak with a similar vision. He believes that a solution from the ocean could solve one of its biggest problems. The company based in Brittany has produced a range of algal bioplastic products, especially single-use items (such as disposable packaging).
AlgoTek’s goal – 100% renewable plastics
A group of graduates of the University of Oregon formed a company called AlgoTek to develop an algae-based plastic that’s 100% biodegradable and sustainable.
Brown algae powder undergoes a proprietary process to create flexible, thin, tough plastics. These can be used for various items such as bottles, pill capsules, toilet seat covers and travel containers.
This plastic isn’t entirely waterproof but it’s possible to control the time the material takes to break down. AlgoTek’s proof of concept has helped raise about $35,000 for it to get off the ground. It is in the process of pursuing patents, looking for seed funding and talking to potential manufacturing partners.
Bloom – harvests excess algae
Bloom is a company that uses a mobile harvester to collect excess algae clogging up waterways. After converting the algae into a polymer, it produces all kinds of foam-based products, such as sneaker soles, backpack padding, car seat upholstery and surfboard traction pads.
Dutch designers create a revolutionary new bioplastic
Klarenbeek and Dros are Dutch designers who have been working for three years to create a new bioplastic made from algae. They believe it could entirely replace oil-based plastic. They cultivate living algae, harvest it, dry it and powder it.
It is blended with another biopolymer to bind it and some natural additives. The mix is processed into a filament that can be used to 3D print objects.
The algae they use is spirulina, a blue-green microalgae that comes from a network of spirulina farmers in the South of France. The designers have been building all kinds of products at the atelier LUMA in France.
These 3D-printed products effectively prevent carbon from being released back into the atmosphere. The designers believe that if we used algae to create the type of daily household products we rely on, these 3D-printed products could effectively increase the amount of carbon being pulled out of the air and we could even go to negative carbon emissions.
The designers plan to get local designers and manufacturers to print products using the material. An online CAD model catalog of items from laundry bins to tableware will help them to do this.
They are already providing restaurants and catering establishments in their city of Zaandam with sets of flatware to help kick-start a transition. They have also partnered with other companies producing bio-polymer to create a network known as a 3D Bakery.
The idea is that consumers could simply walk down the street and ‘bake’ items rather than buying them from large multi-national companies. The next step is to build a whole decentralized network of manufacturers and shops.
It can only be hoped that modern industrial society can rapidly devise effective ways of dealing with the mountains of plastic causing so much environmental harm. Moving towards algae bioplastics could offer hope for the future.