The ocean’s value has been estimated as high as $24 trillion, yet despite its inherent connections to the health and well-being of wildlife, humans, and the global economy, it continues to be overexploited and polluted. Scientists have estimated that a minimum of 5.25 trillion plastic particles are in the oceans, and some studies suggest that these contaminants can make their way all the way up the food chain.
Is it possible for plastic packaging to co-exist with healthy oceans and less trash in landfills? A group of three designers from Japan believes it can, and has created several packaging material prototypes from a new kind of plastic derived from seaweed.
The design collective, AMAM, is exploring the potential uses of agar as an alternative to synthetic plastics of all kinds through an ongoing material research project known as Agar Plasticity. They begin with seaweed, or more specifically, two kinds of red algae which are already being grown and harvested worldwide. Agar can be extracted by boiling red algae, and is chilled into a jelly-like substance. Traditionally, it is consumed as food in Japan and is often used for making sweets, but it has also been used for other scientific and medical applications. Instead of making candy, the designers, Kosuke Araki, Noriaki Maetani and Akira Muraoka, freeze, thaw, and air-dry the agar.
Araki, Maetani and Muraoka’s experiments found that agar powder could be used to produce a transparent film, loose-fill cushioning and a package with integrated cushioning, as well as mixed with red algae fibre and shell ash powder to produce other materials.
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The red algae fibre is a waste by-product from agar production, but the designers suggest that it could be sold to farmers for use as fertilizer, since it still contains “lots of minerals” after the extraction process, or could be combined with agar powder to make thicker packaging materials. Araki, Maetani and Muraoka suggest that the composite material could be used for wrapping flowers, cushion packaging for plant pots and wine bottles, or moulded into boxes.
Shell ash powder is also a waste by-product of the food industry, and the designers say that it can often result in “huge disposal costs for farmers.” While shell ash and water is an ineffective mixture, Araki, Maetani and Muraoka found that adding agar can create a moldable composite. Their prototypes have led them to believe that the composite can be molded into complicated shapes or extruded, even industrially, and could be used in building materials such as wall tiles.
Perhaps the best part is the materials’ disposal. All of them are biodegradable, and the designers expect them to be harmless to marine life should they end up in the ocean. What’s more, the agar absorbs and holds water very well even after it has been made into these ‘plastics,’ so they can be used as a material for improving the water-retention of soil or fertilizer.
The designers are hoping to further the materials’ development by collaborating with industry partners. Earlier this month, their prototypes were on display in Milan for the Lexus Design Awards, where AMAM was named the 2016 Grand Prix winner.
Meanwhile, sharks are at risk for many reasons beyond ocean health. Besides for the shark fin trade, sharks are also killed for the curative compounds found in their organs, such as squalene, or a shark liver oil. Squalane, a natural moisturizer widely used in our cosmetics and in vaccines, can be derived from squalene, but is also naturally present in plants, animals and humans.
“The other plant-derived squalene that exists is made from olives, but olives are a more volatile and climate-dependent crop, therefore, less sustainable than sugarcane. The sugarcane squalene is also more pure, higher quality and a better ingredient for the consumer. It is easy to formulate with, readily biodegradable and has a very stable supply,” Caroline Hadfield, the senior vice president of Personal Care of both Biossance and its parent company Amyris, explained to PSFK.
PSFK reports that Biossance sources its sugarcane from Brazil and works with local workers who oversee its processing at a zero-waste facility. Hadfield explained that “the sugarcane field is next to the production facility where the bagasse from the sugarcane stock is used for energy co-generation and the excess energy is released back to the power grid.”
While sugarcane can be a water-intensive crop, no additional watering is needed thanks to the region’s levels of rainfall, according to Hadfield. (Although, as PSFK rightly pointed out, Brazil has been victim to dramatic droughts in recent years.)
Amyris is also researching sugarcane-derived replacements for petroleum, in addition to the cosmetic applications including fragrances and biopharmaceuticals.