We all know that among the many environmental problems our planet faces, one of them is entirely fixable. Nearly everything we buy at the supermarket or online comes in packaging, which is usually made of plastic.
After we throw it away, most of this plastic will end up in landfills or, as is most often the case in the developing world, rivers and oceans. Researchers cited in a 2018 article in the Daily Telegraph estimate that the most durable plastic bags, bottles, and packaging materials can take “up to 450 years to break down.”
The sheer amount of plastic in the world’s oceans is especially staggering—somewhere between 5 million to 13 million metric tons every year, according to a 2015 study published in the journal Science. If these figures continue to increase as the world’s population grows, future generations are liable to find themselves buried or drowning under mounds of plastic.
Besides reducing consumption of products that use plastics, reusing what we already have, and recycling the rest, what is there to be done about this problem?
While we often hear about the dangers of plastic to the environment and our health, we sometimes forget why plastic became so popular in the first place. Plastics are cheaper and more durable than materials like paper, not to mention that they’re also lighter than wood or glass. Most of all, plastics are infinitely moldable.
Thankfully, a “bioplastic” that has all these advantages without harming the environment has emerged thanks to a Chilean designer by the name of Margarita Talep. Fittingly for someone who comes from the art world, her solution is just as beautiful as it is smart.
According to an interview with the designer in U.K.-based architecture and design magazine Dezeen, Talep was less than impressed with most alternative packaging solutions and wanted to tackle the most pressing issue of single-use plastic packaging, which is discarded immediately after use.
Talep has used an unusual material that is freely available in abundance all over the world—red algae found in the sea. Rather than design a recyclable material, Talep was interested in something that would break down quickly and easily.
In order to create a lightweight material that would look, feel, and function like plastic, Talep settled on agar, which is naturally derived from seaweed. Agar is a gelling agent popular in Asian countries for making desserts, but also has many other uses in food production and medical research.
Talep found that she could heat the agar up to make a gel that could be easily shaped in different ways. As per Dezeen, Talep usually makes a mixture of agar, water, and natural dyes.
Her designer’s touch is also seen in coloring solutions. News site truththeory.org reports the use of “natural dyes […] developed from vegetables and fruits.” Orange colors come from carrots, reds from beets, blues from blueberries, and so on.
The mixture is then heated to 80 degrees Celsius (176 degrees Fahrenheit), and poured into a mold. According to her, it “can be poured into different kinds of molds to give it a specific shape.”
When the temperature drops to below 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit), the consistency becomes similar to a gel. Finally, it is left to dry in an airy environment that has a constant temperature to form thin plastic.
Best of all, current plastic takes centuries to break down, but Talep’s seaweed packaging degrades naturally within two to three months, depending on how thick it is and what the weather conditions are like.
Talep is realistic about the fact that her seaweed plastic won’t solve the world’s problems by itself. As she told Dezeen, “it is not enough to just to [sic] create new materials,” as people also need to recycle more of the plastics already in circulation.
Check out the fruits of Talep’s labor, including a nifty case for glasses, on her Instagram feed whose clever handle @desintegra.me, reads as “break me down” in Spanish. A beautiful marriage of science and art from our oceans that could also help save them!