Getting Past the Plastic: Exploring Fossil-Free Alternatives
Last Updated on March 25, 2021
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 is also represents a perennial source of pollution.
Plastics waste is accumulating everywhere (from the deepest ocean to 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, that which make it so lightweight and durable, are also what make it so awful for the environment. It’s past time to reconsider it’s dominance, and look to alternatives.
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.
We Can’t Recycle Our Way Out of It
Recycling isn’t quite the solution either. While it may lessen the environment 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 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.
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!
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 molded 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
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 Jónsson (Dezeen Magazine).
There are also a number of phenomenal developments in using mushrooms. Mycelium, the vegetative part of fungus, 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 Fungal😉
If you thought that was sweet, and are wondering why it’s not in 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.
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).
Finally, if these tidbits haven’t yet peaked your curiosity on fungal packaging, check out the above video! It’s a TED Talk providing a comprehensive explanation of fungus as a plastic alternative. Although the vid is a couple years old already (2010), it’s still worth the watch.
Lastly (at least for this post, as I’m sure there will be more innovation to come), there’s shrimp carcasses. Yes, you read that right. Researchers from the Harvard Wyuss 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 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 have also developed a comparable means of plastic alternative from the shells of crabs, shrimps, and lobster (CBC).
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;)