Algal bioplastics are the future - here is why
Having redefined the planet as the most useful product ever created, plastic now threatens the very existence of life in the planet’s oceans. These days, public authorities race to implement legislations to minimise, if not eliminate plastic from our daily lives and environment. China has announced it will no longer import foreign garbage to recycle and the EU has openly declared war on plastics with its plan to eliminate single-use plastics by 2030, through mind-changing campaigns, taxation, modernisation of plastic production and increased research. At the same time key investors continue divesting funds from fossil fuels to greener energy solutions. In all of this, though not so obvious, seaweed plays crucial roles. Not one, but many. JONAA looks in depth at the issue of plastic in our oceans, the history that made that happen and the future we have to solve.
With an estimated 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic, currently constantly churning through water column of the world oceans, blanketing their surface and shores, the world has suddenly woken up to the magnitude of this crisis and how little choice or control we have in our personal contribution to this toxic maelstrom. Geologists of the future will look back at the tiny sliver in the geological record representing the past eighty years and observe a profound change in the chemical structure and content of sedimentary formations. A fundamental transition during which in a blink, humans modified and redefined the biosphere. The material which will most clearly mark in this record, our near metamorphosis of the living planet and the dawning of a new geological epoch, The Anthropocene, is plastic.
Rumbles of disquiet about the multiple and mounting impacts of plastic debris on the marine environment have been growing louder recently and are now seismic. Following the UN Conference of the Sea in Malta, June 2017 and indeed the almost universal broadcast of the BBC’s Blue Planet 2, an increasingly educated public, erupted in outrage as viewers globally witnessed the true scale of marine plastics and visualised their impacts on individual creatures. The dirty secret of plastic is out.
Solid oil, with a few chemical adjustments and additives, these hydrocarbon derivatives sparked the consumer revolution, permitting an endless range of new products to be manufactured on an unprecedented scale. The first truly synthetic plastic was Bakelite, invented in New York in 1907, however the real plastic revolution began in 1957 when Bisphenol A (BPA), originally developed as a synthetic mimic of the female sex hormone oestrogen, was polymerised with Phosgene to produce Polycarbonate. Scientists have long been warning of the threats to human health posed by our plastic obsession and on the health of the oceans.
As zooplankton are known to eat plastic, so does every other marine creature right up the food chain, increasingly damaging the endocrine of the animals at the top - us humans. At the same time as this is the least visible effect of marine micro plastics it is the one with the impact of greatest concern.
Plastic once appeared the perfect solution to the problem of food waste caused in conveying product to customer. It extended the shelf life and the geographical reach of existing commodities and displaced relatively more expensive, though considerably more environmentally benign glass, metal and cardboard. Being relatively cheap, the convenience and versatility of this incredibly useful material saw types and uses grow exponentially until they reached into every corner and recess of modern life. Much has been recognised on the accumulation of single use plastics, along with ‘nurdles', micro plastics and fibres. It is easy to understand the concept of visible plastic litter floating in the sea, though perhaps a little more abstract in the instance of microscopic foam particles which continually wash from synthetic foam or Wet Wipe type tissues manufactured from plastic and when flushed, become part of the all colonising soup of indestructible toxic debris.
Whilst our continued consumption of single or limited use products made from this indestructible material is absurd, perhaps the greater affront to the oceans is the estimated 53 billion lentil sized “nurdles", the pelleted feedstock of the plastics industry, which according to the Scottish charity Fidra inadvertently “escape” into the UK environment alone, before they are even used for their intended purpose. That problem is repeated across the globe.
So, the single most useful material ever devised is now a universal curse for which no cure is on the horizon. Public outrage, “Something must be done!” But what?
Plastics have literally become woven into the very fabric of society to such an extent that a plastic free life is now almost impossible. Plastic waste has been quietly accumulating in the marine environment and shores for generations and in some of the remotest parts of the oceans forming seemingly endless and indestructible gyres of floating rubbish. They have comprehensively blanketed beaches and saturated oceans from plastic bags and PCB poisoned shellfish discovered 10km below the Pacific in the Mariana Trench, throughout the water column to the formerly icebound and inaccessible Arctic Ocean, where large lumps of polystyrene are mysteriously appearing on isolated ice floes. Whether as micro-particles, micro-beads, bottles or bags, plastics are routinely ingested by a multitude of aquatic species and synthetic microfibres have been discovered embedded in the living tissue of filter feeding shellfish, having invaded their flesh like an ingrowing hair. Reports suggest that domestic washing machines are one of the greatest sources of micro fibre pollution, flushing out synthetic flexible needles during wash cycles into watercourses. The filters used by municipality waste water treatment facilities are often incapable of removing these microscopic hairs, permitting them to flow directly into estuaries and into the sea.
Contrary to the hype and regardless of the type, plastic doesn’t break down, it breaks up. An estimated 12m tonnes of plastic enter our oceans every year and every bit of plastic ever manufactured still exists somewhere.
The greatest impacts of marine plastic are often felt furthest from their point of origin. The Gulf Stream, which warms and enriches the waters of the North East Atlantic,also acts as a conveyor for the plastic detritus of industrial Europe and beyond, mopping up toxic chemicals, voyaging until their eventual deposition on the shores of the often remote North. There they accumulate over time, weathering and breaking down through wave action and sunlight exposure, until eventually absorbed into the sediments and the food chain.
Scientists have observed plastic in the intestines of over 800 species, including whales, seals, fish, molluscs, even microscopic zooplankton have all been found to ingest microscopic plastic fragments.
Seabirds appear particularly vulnerable, with some estimates indicating that of certain species, 90% have plastic in their stomachs and intestines. It had long been believed that marine wildlife visually mistook plastic for food, however recent research appears to indicate that their appeal is considerably more insidious. Algae have an affinity with marine plastic and rapidly colonise floating pieces. Organisms appear to eat plastic because they are attracted by the chemical signature of the algae, deceptively signalling the presence of food. Algae emit dimethyl sulphate, critical in the formation of clouds and regulation of weather and climate. It crucially also smells like dinner to a multitude of species and this may go some way in explaining the broad attraction.
Brightly coloured plastic tops from tubes of the Smarties, recently recovered from a remote beach were discovered to be 70 years old. Foam mattresses, polystyrene, polypropylene rope all continue to exist indefinitely in some form and micro-particles from the wearing of synthetic rubber vehicle tyres are easily washed into drains and watercourses. An example of a product contributing to the synthetic load in the sea which is often overlooked.
Plastics mop up a wide range of highly persistent endocrine disrupting organic chemicals on their maritime voyages, adding to the toxic bomb of the plastics themselves.
This may cause malnutrition of species through diet replacement and mechanical obstruction, often leading to starvation. Amongst many other factors, there is also grave concern that the ingestion of plastics has a direct effect on fish stocks though decreased fertility.
A global analysis of 2014 estimated a quarter of a million tons of plastic, much of it in the form of rice sized grains and smaller, are currently circulating in the five great geostrophic ocean gyres and many sub gyres, including the increasingly ice free Beaufort Gyre. This figure for the amount of plastic entering the ocean has been observed to double every 10 years, with half of all plastic in the ocean added in the last 15 years.
It is very difficult to obtain a reliable estimate for the total volume of plastic in and surrounding the world’s oceans. Plastic is not all visible and neither does it all float.
Sampling in varied sea states can produce dramatically varying results and the behaviour of different densities of particles mean many will sink and obtain neutral buoyancy, remaining suspended in the water column. The most common thermoplastic, Polyethylene Terephthalate (PeT) used to make plastic bottles, food enclosures and fabric is denser than seawater and will sink. A generally accepted estimate, the result of extensive coordinated oceanographic survey results and greater datasets is that there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in our oceans and much of it so small, that they can only be recovered using a plankton net.
Old fashioned market forces may yet be responsible for a fresh wave of plastic entering the environment and inevitably, the sea. China, by far the world’s largest consumer of recyclable plastic, has launched a campaign against “Yang Laji" or Foreign Garbage. From January 2018, the country has banned the import of a wide range of plastics, including PeT and will impose significant restrictions on the quantity and quality of other plastic waste they accept.
Despite good intentions, these restrictions threaten to create a “worthless” surplus of plastic in the developed world as markets vanish and the recycling capacity of many countries is overwhelmed.
This will almost inevitably result in a decrease in overall recycling, meaning more plastic being sent to landfill, incinerated or leaking into the environment. The Chinese ban has prompted calls for the urgent creation of an effective recycling industry throughout the developed world but this is unlikely to be in place before the size and impacts of the forthcoming plastic tsunami are observed.
In June 2017, in somewhat a brave and enlightened stand, and in the face of some very powerful vested interests, the European Union moved to restrict the use of Bisphenol A (BPA). Of the 3.8m tons of global production, European industry consumes one third. Highly toxic and persistent, it wreaks havoc with the endocrine system in all exposed organisms. It has been recognised as distorting hormonal development in creatures ranging from molluscs to highest order mammals, including humans, where they are often found in their greatest concentrations and are linked to conditions such as cancer, learning difficulties & diabetes. And it is worth noting that BPA is but one of many similar chemicals with similar effects.
Whilst the restriction of such chemicals is highly desirable, the restrictions on BPA leave the plastics industry and many industries dependant on plastic products in a quandary and opens a new front in the now almost universally declared war on fossil plastic.
A shortage of BPA could act as a timely catalyst in the transition to ecologically neutral alternatives, already on the market and capable of meeting all of the demands and requirements we currently place on the fossil kind. Algal plastics can replace most of the single use plastic by-products like bottles, which the packaging industry has forced consumers to become so dependant on - but, unlike the nightmare variety, once used (and it is often only once) Algal plastics will rapidly biodegrade to their organic state and act as a fertiliser. Made from sodium alginate and calcium chloride, bioplastic water bottles are currently being manufactured for €.01. With the development of algal bioplastics, the limiting factor may be manufacturing capacity and demand could rapidly outstrip supply, especially if products enclosed in fossil plastic will be rejected as regressive.
Materials derived from marine algae bioplastic go far beyond bags and bottles as the long chain organic polymers of seaweeds make them an ideal substitute for many material and fabric requirements.
Toyota for example, in 2009 announced that they expected to be producing future car bodies from seaweed - which as a building material has a uniquely negative ecological footprint.
Skipping Rock Labs in London have developed a unique product named the Ooho. An edible globule of water in an enclosure made entirely from plant and seaweed matter. It is cheaper to produce than conventional plastic and is biodegradable in 4 - 6 weeks. Biochemists at Algopack, a Brittany based company and affiliated researchers have devised and perfected production of a wide range of algal bioplastics products capable of replacing almost all the demands currently met with fossil plastic, which is especially important for single-use items. With an almost negligible ecological footprint it would make irrefutable sense that governments actively encourage the development of a bioplastics industry, which could be further incentivised through tax concessions.
A moratorium on new fossil plastic production could help stimulate an economy based on mining the plastic circulating in the 5 main ocean gyres and multiple sub-gyres, estimated to be circulating 236,000 metric tons at any given time although it is unlikely that this material could be conventionally recycled. Dedicated Ocean Plastic Recovery craft are currently under test and recovery operations can be expected to accelerate, however just how much impact they can have will be determined not least by how much plastic continues to be added to the seas as recovered. A dutch seaweed farming company estimate that 0.15% dry weight of their seaweed harvest could be recovered plastic and civil engineers report encouraging results in using plastic granules as a sand substitute in concrete.
With the Anthropocene now undeniably redefining our biosphere and the sixth Great Extinction well underway, our species must rapidly think outside the box and act quickly.
As an expression of our collective humanity and, as the JONAA region is one of the most plastic impacted areas on the planet, we can demand of our politicians and producers that they use every means to cease the bombardment of consumers with fossil plastics and switch to to algal bioplastic. Unilateral and multilateral strategies must also be devised to encourage the long term redeployment of the plastic already in circulation, perhaps locking it up permanently in roads and buildings. Algal bioplastics are the future. All others bioplastics utilise finite resources, albeit often waste and recycled materials, merely extending the value chain of an existing waste stream. There are no such limitations on the supply of feedstock for the algal bioplastic industry, in addition to the positive environmental feedback of seaweed aquaculture and the reduction in offshore extraction of fossil hydrocarbons and fracking.
It can only be hoped for the sake of the marine environment and the complex web of life dependant upon it, that modern industrial society can rapidly devise effective ways of preventing new plastics entering any watercourses and that a global effort can be undertaken to begin to tackle the vast floating islands and storm cast mountains of plastic already doing so much damage to our precious fragile oceans.
Ari Jónsson, design student at the Iceland Academy of Arts, created a biodegradable water bottle by combining red algae powder (agar) with water. It’s 100% natural and 100% biodegradable.
John is an veteren photojouranlist and writer of 18 years standing, specialising in marine issues. His work has taken him from the Barents to Bearing seas, though not directly and to the Southern Ocean. John studied Geography and Marine Science at Glasgow University and is the Marine Science Editor of JONAA and a founding member of the JONAA team. He resides on a croft in the Outer Hebrides and aspires to be a seaweed farmer.