Companies, scientists designers and bioengineers all around the world, are working hard to bring consumers out of the ‘plastic era’, commercialising new materials that imitate the characteristics of petroleum-based plastics without their toxic side effects. Inspired by mother nature’s bio-production methods these are set to replace the production of plastics with bio-compatible alternatives that are not only biodegradable but at end of life gently reenter the environment.
It is estimated that only about 10 percent of petrochemical plastic of 300 million tons produced is recycled with the other 90 percent making its way into the environment to choke oceans, waterways and landfill sites.
But if the advocates of a series of new disruptive biomaterials and technologies were to have their way, human dependence on these plastics and other toxic synthetic materials could soon end.
There are exciting new alternatives to synthetic materials that won’t cost the earth.
If you were to rank some the most devastating material threats to the environment, polystyrene would be high on the list. The synthetic plastic material is a by-product of the petroleum industry and takes up an estimated 30 percent of US landfill sites
As the US beaches awash with polystyerene fragments post-Hurricane Katrina showed the lightweight foam is scarily pervasive. It forms the basis of a highly lucrative industry that is valued globally as being worth about $20 billion USD and is used to create a huge amount of products – from packaging of consumer goods and food products to home insulation.
The problem is that not only does the production method send huge amounts of toxic chemicals into the air, the foam is impossible to remove from our environment. No microorganism can break it down and no one knows how long it takes to degrade naturally. When it is exposed to pressure and elements, it breaks into small pellets that make its way into environmental systems traces of the material have been found inside marine animals and plants all over the world. When the foam does degrade it breaks down to become styrene, a material listed by the environmental protection groups as a carcinogenic toxin.
In other words, polystyrene is bad, bad news, which is why Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre, co-founders of Ecovative have made the material public enemy number one. If they had their way the polystyrene industry would disappear completely and a material they have created could make that happen.
Ecovative has been making waves worldwide with their Mushroom®Packaging – a bio-degradable, eco-responsible alternative to polystyrene packaging. The material is grown not manufactured by combining agricultural waste – clean post-harvest chaff like stalks, seed husk – with Mushroom®Packaging, the root structure of mushrooms.
The technology was uncovered by Bayer and McIntyre founders while they were still students at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York. Bayer was trying to develop a biocompatible alternative to insulation when he remembered seeing woodchips that had been bound together by mushroom mycelium as a child on his family’s Vermont farm. He partnered with McIntyre to do R&D into mycelium’s potential as an adhesive.
The resulting material is truly groundbreaking. It has all the qualities needed to be a viable bio-friendly alternative to polystyrene. It is quick to make, cheap, durable, water absorbent, flame retardant, impact absorbent, and buoyant. It requires minimal energy to make and can be produced using almost any agricultural waste material which means it can be manufactured locally. It also fulfils cradle-to-cradle criteria. The mushroom foam is biocompatible – which means when you are done with it you can throw it on your garden as nutrient rich compost and it will break down within 90 days.
There’s almost no waste in the production cycle. The agricultural waste and mycelium is put in shaped moulds. The mycelium breaks down the cellulose of the agricultural waste, digests it and turns it into a polymer. The living glue then grows into the spaces between the waste, it solidifies and fuses the material together in just a few days. The organism becomes the final product. It is then extracted in its entirety and put in an oven to halt the mycelium’s growth.
Mushroom® Packaging is now being used by companies like Dell computers and homewares giant Crate & Barrel to ship products. Since mycelium is a natural, self-assembling glue and bonds to wood, Ecovative are also looking at how they can use it as an alternative to petrochemical adhesives. Their biggest challenge is meeting the commercial demand for their product. Ecovative are looking at how they can scale up to ensure they fulfil their dream to become a world leader in sustainable material production.
There is a vast amount of energy and money being invested worldwide to produce bioplastics to replace petroleum and fossil fuel-based polymers. The start-up Algix based in Georgia (US), founded by Ryan Hunt and Michael Van Drunen in 2010 is commercialising algae plastic technology to create bioplastics and bioresins from microalgae and small flowering plants like duckweed. They’re also exploring how farmers could actively grow algae on their farms using nutrients that already exist in agricultural production to make animal feeds, protein supplements, bio-methane and organic fertilisers. Now partnered with Kimberly-Clark Corp, the multinational has worldwide exclusive license to Algix’s biodegradable algae plastic tech.
To make it viable for commercial and industrial use, Algix combine the algae with biodegradable base resins to create plastics with different characteristics. They are still experimenting with the application of their bioplastics but they are looking at using it in packaging and industrial products as well as in the potential production of everyday products like flooring and carpet.
But you won’t be decking your house out with algae carpet just yet. There are a couple of issues that Algix is trying to iron out. At the moment their algae plastic is typically earthy looking, opaque and generally ranges in colour from black to dark green. According to an interview earlier this year with Algix co-founder Ryan Hunt, ALGIX plastic colors ranging from red, brown, tan, blue, yellow and black are now possible, with future hopes into getting into even more vibrant colors, and with the inclusion of pretreatment technologies, white coloration as well.
The material also has an odour that varies from grass to fish food depending on the original source algae. Algix is looking at how they can use technology to eliminate the odour but the plastic can only be clear if the feedstock water is pre-treated.
Biomaterials made from algea continues in ‘Biomaterials forecast near future of design: Part 2‘.