Innovators Finding Alternatives to Plastic

The people engineering eco-friendly alternatives to plastic that won't add to the planet's plastic mountains

24.07.2019 | by Kezia Parkins
Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash
Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

As we come towards the end of Plastic Free July, Global Shakers have been doing some research into the people that are engineering eco-friendly alternatives that won’t add to the planet’s plastic mountains.

The situation we are in today is pretty dire. We are reliant on plastic in almost every area of our everyday lives. Because of this, it seems like an almost impossible task to reduce our plastic mountains to molehills. 

View our full list of Innovators Finding Alternatives to Plastic here. 

Plastics by numbers

Key facts:

  • Half of all plastics ever manufactured have been made in the last 15 years.
  • Production has increased exponentially, from 2.3 million tons per year in 1950 to 448 million tons by 2015. Production is expected to double by 2050.
  • Every year, about 8 million tons of plastic waste escapes into the oceans from coastal nations —  equivalent to placing five garbage bags of trash on every foot of coastline around the world.
  • Some plastics take an estimated 700 years to break down
  • Approx 5,000 items of marine plastic pollution have been found per mile of beach in the UK.
  • Over 150 plastic bottles litter each mile of UK beaches.
  • Recent studies have revealed marine plastic pollution in 100% of marine turtles, 59% of whales, 36% of seals and 40% of seabird species.
  • 100,000 marine mammals and turtles and 1 million seabirds are killed by marine plastic pollution annually.
  • There may now be around 5.25 trillion macro and microplastic pieces floating in the open ocean, weighing up to 269,000 tonnes.

These facts are terrifying, yes. But, now that we are aware of the damaging effects of our plastic reliance, we have seen an influx of people dedicated to finding plastic alternatives. 

Bioengineering is proving to be an incredibly exciting field for finding natural biodegradable materials to meet our packaging needs. 

The plastic bottle is a huge contributor to plastic waste pollution. 38 million plastic bottles go to landfill each year in the US alone. This is terrifying considering 80 percent of plastic bottles never get recycled. And, did you know that 90 percent of the cost of bottled water is the bottle itself?

These facts are ridiculous knowing that in most western countries, it is completely safe to drink from a tap. 

Seaweed and algae, the slimy green stuff that lines are ocean beds in abundance, is proving to be a boon for bioengineering packaging. 

Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez & Pierre Paslier are the creators of Ooho, the edible and biodegradable alternative to plastic.

It’s made from Notpla, the company’s patented material that combines seaweed and plants. Ooho biodegrades in 4-6 weeks, or you can just eat it, making it ideal for on the go consumption.

Similarly, Ari Jónsson discovered that a powdered form of agar, a substance made from algae, could be used to make an alternative to plastic bottles that will start to decompose as soon as it is empty.

Sharon Barak and Kevin Kumala are finding eco-alternatives to plastic bags.

Barak, through her company Solutum, has created an eco-friendly, all-natural compound to be used for the making of plastic bags that is so natural that it can be consumed by humans. Notably, regular plastic machinery can be used to create the products – reducing costs and meeting manufacturers’ requirements.

Kumala, a Balinese biologist founded Avani, a company that makes bioplastic bags made from cassava — an edible tropical root that is cheap and abundant in Indonesia—with the words “I AM NOT PLASTIC” emblazoned on them.

They can dissolve in water and even be eaten safely by marine animals. 

Then there is fungi — another bio-material proving to be ideal for the engineering of biodegradable packaging products. 

Eben Bayer is the CEO and co-founder of Ecovative Design. They create high-quality biodegradable materials out of the root-structure of mushrooms — Mycelium, which is capable of building macrostructures. 

Javier G. Fernandez, CEO of Fermart Lab, created FLAM (Fungal-like Additive Material), a completely organic and biodegradable material to 3D print a wind turbine blade. 

He has also made a biodegradable plastic alternative material based on the “chemistry and molecular design” of the insect cuticle. 

There are the three Gunia brothers, Nick, Matthew and Mark, who have created a new machine to allow people to produce their own detergents and shampoos at home — rather than having to buy a new plastic bottle each time.

Daphna Nissenbaum has created a packaging alternative that draws on lessons from nature — particularly oranges, avocados and other fruit and veg that protect their insides with strong but biodegradable skins. Her flexible solution is TIPA, a solution made from compostable polymers that are capable of breaking down and fertilising soil within six months.

Klaas Hellingwerf is harnessing the natural photosynthetic properties of cyanobacteria to capture sunlight and directly convert CO2 into valuable compounds, such as ethanol, butanol and propanediol.

Also on our list is Lindsay McCormick, CEO of Bite which has found a solution to eradicate toothpaste tubes, and Veronica Harwood-Stevenson, CEO of HumbleeBee, a startup working to synthesise the durable, high-performance materials invented by bees as a plastic alternative. 

Check out our list, Innovators Finding Alternatives to Plastic to learn more. 

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