En­vi­ron­men­tal­ist dreams of fight­ing pol­lu­tion with sea­weed

Al­go­pack, a min­now of the French bio­chem­istry in­dus­try, swaps oil for sea­weed to make plas­tic.

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY CARO­LINE DE MALET

Given cur­rent bar­rel prices and the pol­lu­tion caused by oil pro­duc­tion world­wide, mak­ing plas­tic with sea­weed in­stead of oil seems like a great idea. Remy Lu­cas comes from a fam­ily of Bre­ton “wrack­ers” (sea­weed gath­er­ers) and has drawn on his ex­pe­ri­ence in the petro­chem­i­cals in­dus­try to make this idea, first con­ceived 15 years ago, a re­al­ity.

Now, his dream is about to come true. The com­pany Al­go­pack, which he founded five years ago, is now a mar­ket leader in this tech­nol­ogy for trans­form­ing sea­weed. The prin­ci­ple is seem­ingly sim­ple: ex­tract a pow­der from brown sea­weed and add plant ad­di­tives to pro­duce gran­ules that can then be used by plas­tics man­u­fac­tur­ers to make end prod­ucts. This ma­te­rial has many uses, from lam­i­nates for fur­ni­ture to caps and lids, plant pots and even fu­neral urns. How­ever, it isn’t suit­able for all ap­pli­ca­tions. Un­like Al­go­b­lend, the first prod­uct launched by the com­pany, which is made up of 50 per­cent sea­weed and 50 per­cent plas­tic, this latest prod­uct (“Al­go­pack”) is made en­tirely from sea­weed, mean­ing that it is not trans­par­ent but rather dark brown in colour. Although it is pos­si­ble to bulk-dye the prod­uct, it can hardly be­come clear. As Lu­cas him­self ac­knowl­edges, “We’ll never get into the wa­ter bot­tle mar­ket.”

Pro­tect­ing the En­vi­ron­ment

De­spite this mi­nor draw­back, there are many ad­van­tages to us­ing sea­weed as a raw ma­te­rial. This nat­u­ral re­source ex­ists in un­lim­ited quan­ti­ties and although it is sea­sonal, it can be farmed. Which is pre­cisely what Al­go­pack is do­ing with aqua­cul­tur­al­ists in Saint-Malo bay in Brit­tany. Sea­weed can even be stored for many years. Se­condly, it is cheap; it just needs to be har­vested from the sea. In ad­di­tion to this, the in­dus­trial waste pro­duced by sea­weed (from which the cos­met­ics in­dus­try has al­ready suc­ceeded in ex­tract­ing cer­tain sub­stances) is even cheaper and does the job just as well. As a re­sult, Al­go­pack sells at 1,500 eu­ros (US$1,696) per ton, as com­pared with 2,000 eu­ros for most bio­plas­tics (made from ce­re­als or sugar cane) and 1,200 eu­ros for plas­tic. Fi­nally, it is en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly. Sea­weed does not need any fer­til­izer or pes­ti­cides and can grow in very lit­tle wa­ter. It stores car­bon diox­ide (961 ki­los per ton as it grows) and gives out oxy­gen, which is vi­tal to the growth of plank­ton. Once they reach the end of their life, the end prod­ucts take twelve weeks to biode­grade in soil (as com­pared with four to ten cen­turies for stan­dard plas­tics) and just five hours in the sea. In both cases, they act as fer­til­iz­ers. It should also be noted that this ma­te­rial does not con­tain bisphe­nol A or ph­tha­lates.

Ap­pli­ca­tions around the World

Lu­cas’ work has al­ready earned him recog­ni­tion. In 2011, he won the Crisalide Eco- ac­tivites and In­nova’Bio com­pe­ti­tions and last year he took the To­tal-BFM Busi­ness Award for green chem­istry. Al­go­pack even of­fers hope to those liv­ing in the West Indies and Guyana, where coastal ar­eas are be­ing swamped by un­prece­dented vol­umes of gulfweed. The Sev­enth Con­ti­nent Ex­pe­di­tion, which pro­motes the de­vel­op­ment of al­ter­na­tives to plas­tic, has joined forces with Al­go­pack to solve this prob­lem. The good news is that Al­go­pack’s tests have shown that its process does work with this species of sea­weed. The process has also shown pos­i­tive re­sults in tests car­ried out in sev­eral dif­fer­ent con­ti­nents, in Ja­pan, China, South Africa, Chile and Canada. These promis­ing re­sults mean that Al­go­pack now plans to li­cense its process to lo­cal man­u­fac­tur­ers.

Lu­cas nonethe­less re­mains cau­tious. “We chose to se­cure the re­source be­fore sign­ing any con- tracts, rather than risk not be­ing able to meet de­mand.” As a re­sult, pro­duc­tion only got un­der way in 2013 and the com­pany’s turnover re­mains mod­est at 120,000 eu­ros in May 2015. It is ex­pected to reach 1 mil­lion eu­ros over the course of the next fi­nan­cial year. The com­pany’s work has at­tracted many clients, in­clud­ing Leclerc (trol­ley to­kens), Or­ange (mo­bile phone cases), Sagem­com (Live­boxes) and Bio­coop (fit­tings for 300 shops).

Although Al­go­pack is cur­rently still in the pi­lot phase, the com­pany plans to ac­cel­er­ate its de­vel­op­ment and is ex­pected to start in­dus­trial pro­duc­tion in 2016. Its 12-hectare sea­weed farm has to be ex­tended to 145 hectares and the pro­duc­tion plant is mov­ing to new 1,000-square-me­ter premises. “In five years’ time, we ex­pect to achieve a turnover of around thirty mil­lion eu­ros and cre­ate some thirty new jobs,” Lu­cas ex­plains. The com­pany is cur­rently run­ning a fundrais­ing cam­paign as ex­pan­sion on this scale will re­quire more than 5 mil­lion eu­ros in in­vest­ment.

Although oil com­pa­nies around the world are also show­ing an in­ter­est in this mar­ket, this is not the last we will hear about this new method of clean­ing up the planet, at a time when nearly 269,000 tons of plas­tic waste is float­ing in the earth’s oceans.

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