Plastic out of seaweed

Japanese inventors want to alleviate the problem of marine waste with an ecological, degradable packaging. Made out of marine algae, their product has already received a prestigious design award. The designers are now in search of industry partners to bring their material to the market. Susanne Steffen reports from Tokyo.

Japanese inventors are taking on disposable plastic products with their ecological packaging material made out of algae. (Image credit: Toyota)

Japanese inventors are taking on disposable plastic products with their ecological packaging material made out of algae. (Image credit: Toyota)

Japanese designers have developed a new ecological packaging material made out of biodegradable algae products. Known as agar, the vegan gelatinous material could one day conquer the packaging industry by replacing environmentally harmful foam and plastic films.

Idea came by accident

Three young Japanese designers, all graduates of Tokyo’s Tama Art University, came across the idea when wandering through their local supermarket. Dried agar is usually sold in Japan as an ingredient for traditional sweets.

“Agar interested us as a material because of its beauty and fine texture,” designer Kousuke Araki told local media. Dried agar has a porous, almost spring-like structure and is very light compared to its volume.

“This quickly gave us the idea that it would be suitable as padding material,” he explains further.

Solid, feather-like structure

In just a few simple experiments, the designers soon discovered that the material is also malleable. Similar to when preparing an agar dessert, the young designers dissolved the algae material in hot water and poured it into moulds.

They then froze the gel-like material, thawed it and air-dried it afterwards to achieve a soft, shock-absorbing structure. By compressing it, they were able to achieve a solid, feather-like structure, say the designers.

Material has already won a prize

An initial field test of the ecological material has already been successful: a bottle wrapped in agar padding was transported without any damages from Japan to Italy, as the developers proudly told local media.

Only a few weeks ago, the design group – which goes by the name AMAM – received the Lexus Award for Sustainable Design Innovation.

Completely biodegradable

The biggest advantage of the Agar packaging is that it is completely biodegradable. Unlike conventional plastic, Agar doesn’t harm marine life when tossed into the sea.

Ocean pollution in the form of non-degradable plastic waste, on the other hand, is considered one of the greatest environmental problems of the 21st century. Microplastics especially are increasingly finding their way into the stomachs of fish – and the plates of humans.

According to some estimates, it takes thousands of years until conventional plastic decomposes on its own. And while it is true that plastic can be recycled, this process is not repeated over and over again and most plastic ends up in landfills or oceans.

Inventors search for industry partners

Agar packaging, in contrast, is even useful during the (significantly faster) degradation process. Thanks to its water-retaining properties, it could be used in horticulture, according to its inventors.

“We dream of someday replacing all disposable plastic bags, such as shopping bags, with agar products,” says Araki.

But he and his fellow designers lack the technical and chemical knowledge to make this happen. To implement their ideas, the designers are now in search of industry partners.

“We hope that researchers will be interested in our project and contact us,” says Araki.

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1 Response

  1. Interesting indeed.
    I’m however concerned about two things. Assuming that the idea works and can be implemented on a large scale, one will have someday to face: 1) the intensive extraction of the algae will have consequences on the ecosystem 2) the amount of algae from which agar comes from is limited.

    Or maybe is it possible to make it grow also artifically?
    It’d be interesting to know.

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