WHAT’S THE ALTERNATIVE?
Can we reduce our reliance on plastic? Here are five innovative materials that are in development
1 CARBON DIOXIDE AND SUGAR
As plastics tend to be made using fossil fuels, the search for alternatives is part of the journey towards a more sustainable future. Currently, 4 per cent of global oil production goes into plastic, but scientists are exploring ways to bring this down to zero. A sugar- and carbon dioxide-based substitute for the plastic polycarbonate (used for spectacles lenses, DVDs and greenhouses) has been developed by a team at the University of Bath. Not only does their method bypass fossil fuels, but the resulting material is transparent, strong and biodegradable.
Easily extracted by boiling red algae, agar is used to make confectionery in Japan. In a project called Agar Plasticity, the Tokyo-based design collective AMAM suggested that this gelatinous substance could be a viable plastic alternative. By heating agar, pouring it into moulds and then freezing it, the team was able to make a selection of plastic-like products and packaging (the bottle pictured has been wrapped with the agar ‘plastic’). The designers are now looking to partner with industry so that they can access the scientific and technical knowhoww to take their idea to the next level.
The bulk of a mushroom’s body consists of a mass of underground filaments called the mycelium. By employing mycelia grown on agricultural waste, New York company Ecovative Design is creating a new plastic alternative. A mixture of fungi and their food source can be placed into a mould, such as food packaging or a piece of furniture. Then, once the mould has become filled with a dense mass of mycelia filaments, it is heat-treated to kill off the fungi, leaving a product that is durable but also totally biodegradable.
4 EDIBLE PACKAGING
Food and drink packaging is going to require a huge overhaul if we are to solve the plastic problem. One viable option could be packaging replacements that are just as edible as the products they contain. An example is Skipping Rocks Lab’s ‘Ooho!’, an edible sphere of water made from seaweed extract that you can pop into your mouth (pictured). The US Department of Agriculture, meanwhile, has developed a replacement for the thin plastic films used in food packaging, made from the milk protein casein. Not only are these films biodegradable, sustainable and edible, they are also far better at preventing food spoilage than plastic. Talk about win-win.
5 CHICKEN FEATHERS
Enormous quantities of feathers are produced as a by-product of the poultry industry, and they are generally treated as waste. However, despite their soft and fluffy structure, feathers are composed almost entirely of keratin, a tough protein also found in animal hooves and horns. This means that in theory they could be used as strong, structurally sound, natural replacements for regular plastics. Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have attempted to harness this potential, by pounding feathers into a fine powder, then mixing with chemicals to make the keratin molecules bind together.