by Sara Kiley Watson, Popular Science
American fashion company Tom Ford has announced the finalists for its $1.2 million Plastic Innovation Prize. After a year, three winners will be chosen to share the prize and continue to develop their product, says Dune Ives, executive director of the environmental nonprofit Lonely Whale, which is co-leading the competition.
Out of 64 applicants spanning six continents, eight were selected to material test their concepts for plastic alternatives. Of those finalists, five make bioplastic or plastic film alternatives out of seaweed, kelp, or another form of algae.
Competitors from the UK included Kelpi, which makes compostable and low-carbon bioplastic packaging, and Notpla, which creates natural-membrane packaging that was used in water pouches for London Marathon runners in 2019. Zerocircle, based in Guragaon, India, turns local seaweed into dissolvable, ocean-safe packaging. Sway, based in Berkeley, California, also works with seaweed for a home-compostable thin-film plastic alternative. Finally, Marea, in Iceland, uses local algae to design yet another biofilm alternative that fully degrades in the environment.
According to Mike Allen, lead scientist at Blue Microbe, a marine bioscience group based in the UK, and associate professor of single cell genomics at University of Exeter, “Plastic manufacturing requires stringing ‘basic building blocks’ of chemistry into different polymers. Those building blocks can come from most anything. In traditional plastics, they’re typically the result of crude oil that’s extracted from the ground, refined into polymers, and formed into a clear, durable resin.”
The same process applies to seaweed, he explains. “The plant can be whittled down to its carbons and sugars, and then chemically shaped into building blocks. Once the bonds that hold the plant together are broken down, you get similar ‘biobricks.’ Those can then be used to make an entirely new product.”
All five algae-based finalists in the competition are designed to decompose and biodegrade. Notpla, for example, breaks down in home compost in about 10 days. Meanwhile, Zerocircle’s founder and director Neha Jain says its alternative can break down in marine environments in a matter of hours, depending on the temperature of the water.
Still, it will take many more steps beyond material testing to scale up seaweed-made bioplastics to bring to market. “Plastic-production technologies have gone through more than 70 years of improvement to reach the current output levels,” Ms. Jain says. “Achieving the same efficiency and production capacity from any alternative will take time and encouragement globally.”
Although Dr. Allen emphasizes that swapping out one type of plastic for another won’t make the world any less dependent on disposables, the Plastic Innovation Prize finalists have a chance to address that as well.
“While we don’t wish to see seaweed-based packaging everywhere traditional plastic currently exists, we believe it’s the optimal solution for the many situations where thin-film packaging plays a vital and irreplaceable function,” says Sway co-founder and CEO Julia Marsh.
As the competitors dive into testing their plastic alternatives, they’ll be matched up with major apparel brands like J. Crew, Nike, and Tom Ford to test the products along working supply chains. The products will also be tested for marine animal and environmental safety by the Seattle Aquarium.
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