Marriott Hotels and Starbucks are leading the way by banning single-use plastic straws from restaurants and shops. This is a necessary step in the right direction but not enough in the fight to reduce and eliminate plastic. Innovative entrepreneurs and designers are researching and experimenting with new materials as alternatives to plastic. Seaweed is looking promising to move into a position to replace single-use plastic in food and drink packaging.
Currently about one billion plastic bottles are reaching the oceans every year, producing 300 million kilograms of carbon emissions along the way. The total of plastic waste flowing into the oceans amounts to eight million tons a year, and the demand for plastic or plastic-like materials is going to double in the next twenty years. This is a scary thought considering that it takes up to several hundred years for plastic to fully disintegrate. It is high time that an alternative to single-use plastic is introduced into mainstream markets.
The inventive entrepreneurs at Skipping Rocks Lab, a London-based startup of Royal College of Art (RCA) graduate Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez and Pierre Paslier, have experimented with natural materials since 2013. Trials and research showed that edible brown seaweed, mostly known and eaten in Japan, Korea and China as a nutritional meal complement, has more than health benefits for humans. It could be the new material to replace the harmful plastic that sticks around way too long after use.
In partnership with the Imperial College London, the innovative design engineers created Notpla material, a thin membrane of brown seaweed and plant extract. The revolutionary material’s resource doesn’t’ need fresh water or fertilizer. The seaweed grows up to one meter a day and actively contributes to de-acidifying the oceans. The versatile sea vegetable lends itself as the ideal biodegradable ingredient for edible pods that can hold water or other beverages.
Rodrigo and Pierre used Notpla for their first product to turn the plastic bottle world upside down. They designed Ooho capsules, edible drink containers that can hold water or other liquid in a thin bubble. Biting into it is a similar sensation to eating a cherry tomato. In addition to Ooho capsules, the Notpla material can be used for waterproof and greaseproof coating on cardboard food packaging and sachets for salad dressing, ketchup, sauces and other condiments.
The production of the Ooho capsules requires nine times less energy than plastic that is made from petroleum. The seaweed or algae is fundamentally more environmentally friendly than maize or sugar cane that have also been put forward as plastic alternatives. On top of the benefits, the seaweed membrane is as cost-efficient as traditional plastic.
After the first Ooho video took the world by storm, the cofounders got involved with Climate KIC, Europe’s largest funded accelerator focused on climate innovation, to scale their business.
For its first trial, Skipping Rocks Lab partnered with the 2018 Richmond Marathon in London. During a marathon, large numbers of plastic bottles are thrown away by the runners. The tasteless Ooho capsules that can be consumed as a whole or just bitten into to release the liquid proved to be a hit with runners and organizers as they reduced the amount of trash in the area and contributed actively to protecting the environment.
If not eaten, the seaweed-based substance decomposes in four to six weeks which is similar to the decomposition of a piece of fruit or banana peel. The material disintegrates faster than polylactic acid (PLA) or bioplastic.
The team of designers, chemists, engineers and entrepreneurs knew that they had a wonderful product that is ideal for on-the-go consumption. This led to conversations with the London Marathon event director Hugh Brasher to run a further trial at the annual event in April 2019.
Brasher said, “We are passionate about the concept of eliminate, reduce, reuse and recycle and fully commit to reducing our environmental impact.” He was immediately enthusiastic about the new seaweed capsules and adding them to the event. As the London Marathon organizers have committed to zero-waste by December 2020, lots of initiatives are considered to achieve this ambitious goal. They are making this marathon the most sustainable mass event in the world.
The 30,000 Ooho capsules filled with Lucozade Sport, an electrolyte drink, were produced on-site and distributed at Mile 23 of the marathon route. More than 40,000 people ran in the international event and needed to stay hydrated. This gave the start-up an opportunity to showcase their product to more people than ever before.
The 760,000 plastic bottles that were discarded in 2018 could be reduced by 215,000 bottles through the distribution of the seaweed capsules as well as a system introduced to collect and recycle some of the discarded water bottles that were in previous years left on the side of the road.
The future of the Ooho seaweed capsules is bright and stirs others to invent new materials as alternatives to plastic to help reduce the plastic avalanches heading towards the oceans.
Coming back to the drinking straws: they might pose the easiest habit for consumers to change and a quick fix to slow down the plastic disasters. Loliware, another startup, has designed seaweed straws. They look and feel like plastic, are gluten- and sugar-free and completely marine-degradable after continuous use of up to 18 hours.
This product, like the Ooho capsules, uses regenerative resources, lowers the carbon dioxide and environmental footprint. Let’s go green, let’s go seaweed.
Source: some photos are courtesy of Notpla, mymodernmet, Dezeen, awesomeengineer.