Getting Past the Plastic: Exploring Fossil-Free Alternatives

Getting Past the Plastic

Plastic: A Worldwide Staple

Plastic is a very impressive material! It has provided society with all sorts of amazing advantages and is capable of so much. Despite its remarkable capacity however, it also represents a perennial source of pollution.

Plastic waste is accumulating everywhere (from the deepest ocean to the highest peaks). It sits interminably in our landfills, leaching into our soil and water sources. Plastic waste is literally choking up our oceans. Its notable properties, which make it so lightweight and durable, are also what make it so awful for the environment. It’s past time to reconsider its dominance and look to alternatives.

Plastic Pollution
Plastic pollution has pervaded the natural world. Click to learn more from the Plastic Pollution Coalition.

The Plastic Pollution Problem

For starters, plastics are petroleum-based, which means on top of all the gathering plastic waste, there’s also the whole extraction factor to consider. Despite the enormous effort and energy required to produce our plastics, they are often quickly discarded and left to decompose slowly and gradually, permeating our natural world (It’s Literally Everywhere).

After it’s been processed and manufactured into one of the countless objects we use daily, plastics now remain very much a part of our ecosystem.  It was designed to last, and yet it’s being used for single-serving “disposable” items such as bottled drinks, product packaging, grocery bags, and children’s toys (to name but a few, for more see National Geographic’s Running List). Clearly, we’re using it wrong.

Richard Pryor gif - "I was wrong" about recycling...

We Can’t Recycle Our Way Out of It

Recycling isn’t quite the solution either. While it may lessen the environmental impact to a certain extent, the ideal is to dramatically cut back on its use and thereby avoid the recycling issue altogether (See Europe to Ban Single-Use Plastics). Although some highly motivated individuals and organizations have taken it upon themselves to try to clean up some lakes, rivers, and beaches or plastic waste, we need to prevent it from getting there in the first place. Essentially, turn off the plastic tap.

Seaweed can totally help reduce our plastic dependence. Click for more from Wired.

1. Seaweed

Some aspiring young social entrepreneurs from Japan have devised a way to convert seaweed into a packaging material that could replace plastic. Kosuke Araki, Noriaki Maetani, and Akira Muraoka, the creative minds behind AMAM Design, have crafted this new potential packing material which they call, “Agar Plastic.”

It’s derived from (red) algae and could provide countless consumer applications. As a fast-growing, cost-effective, and biodegradable material, seaweed represents a genuine eco-friendly alternative to conventional plastic. Given its versatile nature and widespread abundance, the possibilities are endless!

Agar (Seaweed) Plastic
Click the image for more details from Good Inc.

Algae Products (Agar Plastic)

Seaweed thus represents a brilliant and sustainable option for so many needs that we currently resolve with plastic. As an ample resource found all over the world, it is also highly renewable. In addition, as a material, it can be moulded into countless forms. The applications are immense! Click on the above image to learn more about them.

London Marathon Swaps Out Plastic Bottles

Seaweed Water Capsules!­čś▓

Seaweed Water Capsules

Another brilliant application for seaweed is as an alternative to plastic water bottles. Not only can they hold water, but they can either biodegrade or be eaten afterwards! One manufacturer of seaweed water capsules, Ooho! (check them out on Twitter) recently helped supply water for the London Marathon (above video). For more inspiration, check out this (algae) Biodegradable Water Bottle designed by Icelandic design student, Ari J├│nsson (Dezeen Magazine).

Mushrooms can represent an alternative to plastic
Click the image for more on fungus as a material of the future (Smithsonian).

2. Mushrooms

There are also a number of phenomenal developments in using mushrooms. Mycelium, the vegetative part of fungi, has amazing binding properties and can provide a genuine replacement for plastic packaging materials.

Below is a pretty cool Motherboard (the tech branch of VICE) video, sharing the work that’s being done out of a university in the Netherlands. They’ve been developing some pretty awesome mycelium!

Fungus: The Plastic of the Future

The Future is Fungal­čśë

If you thought that was sweet, and are wondering why it’s not happening on this side of the Atlantic, turns out it is. There are a number of mushroom plastic developers, like this one from Green Island, New York: Ecovative Design.

Mycelliem (Mushroom) Plastic Packaging
Ikea is already onboard to make the switch from plastic to mycelium (mushroom) packaging. Click the image for more details.

Mushroom Packaging

This is what a fungus-based, Mycelium package looks like. The good news it’s versatile and totally biodegradable! IKEA is committing to the transition, but there are literally tons of applications. Another mycelium supplier, MycoWorks is also creating leather-like material & products from this mushroom material. See also Bolt Threads (FastCompany).

Goodbye Styrofoam

Finally, if these tidbits haven’t yet piqued your curiosity of fungal packaging, check out the above video! It’s a TED Talk providing a┬ácomprehensive explanation of fungus as a plastic alternative. Although the vid is a couple years old already (2010), it’s still worth the watch.


3. Shrimp

Lastly (at least for this post, as I’m sure there will be more innovation to come), there are shrimp carcasses. Yes, you read that right. Researchers from the Harvard Wyss Institute have been working on a bio-plastic developed from shrimp shells.

It’s strong, light, cost-effective, and happily biodegradable. Furthermore, this doesn’t imply going out and suddenly slaughtering shrimp by the millions, but rather putting to use the expelled shrimp shells that we consume regardless.

Crustacean Shell Plastic

Crustacean Shell Plastic Packaging

Admittedly, not an obvious connection at first, but when you contemplate it a little longer, it’s actually surprisingly logical. Crustaceans develop this shell organically and leverage its strength and weight. More recently, Montreal’s own McGill University has also developed a comparable means of plastic alternative from the shells of crabs, shrimps, and lobster (CBC).

Millie Bobby Brown - Mind blown gif

So Much Awesomeness

Be it from seaweed, mushroom, or shrimp, there are plastic alternatives out there! They may not have been adopted yet, however these are but a sampling of the great initiatives that exist as we seek to distance ourselves from plastic disposables. Other solutions include finding alternative practices that require little to no packaging or doing away with disposables entirely. It really boils down to having the desire for change.

Humans truly are incredible problem-solvers, so the first stage of solution development is coming to terms with the notion that we may in fact have a problem with the way we are doing things (see Developing Awareness) and a belief that we can improve it. Hope this left you with a little inspiration;)


11 thoughts on “Getting Past the Plastic: Exploring Fossil-Free Alternatives

Add yours

  1. Well, there remains the problem of the already-disposed-of plastic that is filling landfills and polluting the oceans. There is the option of waste-to-energy plants that have some potential. I disapprove of any single-use packaging, myself, whether of hydrocarbons or fungus. We are far too wasteful. The packaging raises the price of everything and sometimes costs more than the items within. Think bottled water. Think McDonalds.


    1. You’re absolutely right, there is a definitive need to cut back on our day-to-day consumption and diminish the disposable culture, however it is not contrary to finding alternatives to plastic. Indeed there is so much in our oceans and landfills to begin with, but thankfully there are ideas in that department as well:) I’ve shared recently on my FB page about some young entrepreneurs who had created a system to help pick out the plastic in our oceans. No an all encompassing solution to be sure, but a valid contribution nonetheless, as we work towards shifting our culture and social consciousness.


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