Seaweed has been around for well over one billion years, supporting ecosystem health and providing almost half the oxygen in our atmosphere. Today, researchers and innovative companies are beginning to study the potential of these ancient plants for the production of a sustainable alternative to plastic. While so far they have shown seaweed-based plastic has incredible properties compared to other forms of bio-plastics, could it really help curb the global crisis of plastic pollution?
We all know the harm that plastic can cause to the environment, but what if I told you it was even worse than we imagined?
Last year, a plastic bag was discovered deep down in the Mariana Trench, our planet's deepest oceanic trench which goes down more than 10,000 meters in depth. In 2020, microplastics were detected in the peaks near Mount Everest and just recently in Antarctica within penguin droppings. Perhaps more alarmingly, they´re being found close to home as well. In 2022, researchers found microplastics in human blood for the first time. It showed up in about 80% of the patients tested and raises concern about how this might affect human health. That is a bit too close to home if you ask me.
While researchers have been looking for biodegradable alternatives to plastic for decades, there's no doubt they´ve encountered a lot of stumbling blocks. The demand for materials with high durability, water resistance, transparency, and cost-effectiveness has proven difficult to meet with traditional forms of bioplastics.
In California, an innovative startup called Sway is hoping to overcome some of these difficulties by using Seaweed to develop a unique plastic-like material. "It actually has greater tensile strength than traditional Plastic" says the CEO of Sway, Julia Marsh, about their bioplastic during a conference held by the See Change Sessions in 2022. Not only is it strong, but Marsh explains that it can easily be made transparent and is naturally water-resistant. In particular, Sway aims to produce biodegradable thin-film plastics that can be used in packaging, bags, and even plastic wraps.
According to Marsh, seaweed plastics are so promising due to the natural composition of seaweed. Agar, alginate, and carrageenan are all-natural polymers, primarily occurring in seaweeds, that provide unique properties for biomaterials. Unlike many other plant-based polymers, those in seaweed are naturally water-repellent and even allow for heat sealing. These features will hopefully allow these new materials to be seamlessly integrated into existing infrastructure.
Seaweed can also be grown in a much more sustainable fashion than conventional crops. It doesn’t compete for arable land since it's grown directly in the ocean, and it doesn’t require fresh water or synthetic fertilizers. It also grows rapidly, faster than most conventional crops, all while capturing and storing carbon dioxide.
According to Julia Marsh, it would only take 32% of current seaweed production to replace a quarter of the plastic we use. While that’s a significant quantity of seaweed, she feels confident citing that global seaweed production is a growing industry, doubling in production every decade.
Sway isn't the only company thats caught on to the amazing properties of seaweed either. The Australian company Uluu is also utilizing Seaweed in a novel way. By fermenting seaweed with special oceanic microbes, they produce a unique material called PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoates). This is refined, processed, and eventually made into pellets that they hope can be easily integrated into current manufacturing processes. The UK company, Notpla, has also developed many seaweed-based plastic food-packaging products that they are already offering to the public.
It’s not just plastic and seaweed either. Alternative materials are being developed using all sorts of unique materials. Ecovative Design, a New York State company, has already taken great strides in using fungi to replace various unsustainable materials. They are already utilizing fungal mycelium to make a biodegradable alternative to styrofoam packaging, as well as developing fungal leather. A Mexico-based company has also taken up the challenge to reduce the environmental impact of leather by developing a cactus-based one called Desserto. Lastly, another Mexican company called BioFase, was the first to fashion the avocado-based cutlery that you may have already seen in an establishment near you.
While biomaterials offer endless possibilities for a sustainable future, they are a long way from becoming the norm. In many cases, biomaterials are as good as the real thing, but the low cost of conventional materials like plastic makes it hard to compete in the market.
For biomaterials to make a significant impact, scaling up and streamlining the production processes will be essential to lower costs. Government regulations could also play a crucial role in incentivizing the use of biomaterials, through policies that provide subsidies or those that impose tariffs on environmentally harmful materials.
Regardless of how long it will take for these materials to become mainstream, we should get in the habit of avoiding single-use plastics anyway. It’s likely they won’t be going away anytime soon, and even if they were biodegradable, they still require energy and resources to produce. This being said, there’s no doubt the world will be better off once we have the option to sip our favorite beverages from seaweed-based straws and mushroom mycelium cups.
As stewards and members of the environmentally-conscious community, let's not just embrace, but actively advocate for positive changes that work in harmony with our planet. Whether it's incorporating sustainable material into our business practices, or consuming from businesses that do, every small effort can help to promote these practices on a global scale.
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