Are Algae an Alternative for Single-Use Plastic?

Are Algae an Alternative for Single-Use Plastic?

Single-use plastic has been known as one of the most detrimental factors to our environment. Containing chemicals like PVC and BPA that are harmful to humans as well as other life forms.

The biggest issue comes from it’s disposal. Most single-use plastic isn’t recyclable. It ends up in landfill or the sea. As it doesn’t biodegrade, it slowly breaks down into smaller pieces that either choke wildlife or end up in water systems.

The benefits of single-use plastic are safety, flexibility and cost effectiveness. So what is needed to rival this?

In January of 2019 it was announced that Chilean based designer Margarita Talep had developed an alternative to single-use plastics.

After searching for an eco-friendly alternative, Talep created a polymer mix from natural substances that could be coloured with natural dyes.

One of the creations of the project by Margarita Talep. ©Margarita Talep

The main ingredient to form this material is agar. This is extracted from boiling red algae - another process that isn’t harmful to the environment.

The plasticiser content of the material is water. This changes the consistency of the final product and makes this alternative as flexible as standard single-use plastic. Once the agar is boiled, it can then be placed in a mould to solidify. It takes on a gel like consistency before completely drying to be as thin as paper or some of the finest plastics.

Algotek is another company that formed in 2017. They too produce this alternative from brown algae.

They saw the need in the market to produce a green alternative to single-use plastic and were able to produce a product that matches standard specifications on thickness, stretch and degradation.

The "plastic" with no plastic created by Algotek ©Sarah Northrop/Emerald

As one of the components is water to make this biodegradable material, it’s suited well for storing dry food. The water component suggests that it isn’t waterproof, as this will start the degrading process. Through testing it has been determined that this can be controlled to begin breaking down anywhere from 1 minute to 2 weeks.

CEO David Crinnion explained in 2018 how this degradation process affects the material’s waterproofness.

"The degradation only happens when the material is submerged in liquid" Crinnion said. "For example if we took the material that takes two weeks to degrade and (put it) under water for two minutes then took it back out, the material would be exactly the same as when it went in. So technically it is waterproof but only for a certain amount of time.”

To rival single-use plastic a material needs to maintain the same properties. Safety, flexibility and cost effectiveness. To surpass and be more beneficial to the world, this material needs to be biodegradable. The agar that comes from algae, mixed with water to plasticise it and using vegetable dyes to colour it, appears to bring all the benefits and more.

Algotek claims their ‘plastic’ can be heated to 140°F and cooled to 10°F without the material changing state. Talep’s material has been proven to biodegrade within 2 months during summer periods and up to 4 months during the winter. Potentially a more stable version than the brown algae, but nonetheless, the most invaluable benefit to using these materials is them not being plastic.

If manufacturers were to consider using this type of material over single-use plastic the world could start to combat the effects of plastic waste. By not creating virgin plastic to contribute to the issue, attention can be placed on how to deal with what’s already causing the problem and not fighting the constant additions.