Can we re­duce our re­liance on plas­tic? Here are five in­no­va­tive ma­te­ri­als that are in de­vel­op­ment

Focus-Science and Technology - - Blue Planet II -


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.


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.


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.

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