When plastic was first developed, it became a hot new trend for its sturdiness, its diverse applications, and its convenience.
Plastic goods of all kinds quickly came into being, ranging from Tupperware to machine parts, to plastic bags. It took years before we figured out that its very durability was also a potential hazard.
Because plastic doesn’t break down, we are becoming inundated with garbage made from it. Microbeads and other small plastic goods are posing a health hazard to wildlife, and we even have clumps of plastic bags the size of islands floating in our oceans. What to do with our plastic waste has become a real problem.
Happily, that may be about to change, according to a report from Smithsonian.
Product designer Lucy Hughes recently won the James Dyson Award because she developed a transparent, biodegradable, plastic-like film that can be used instead of a lot of single-use food packaging. She calls it MarinaTex.
The website for the product says it can be used for things ranging from bags to replacing the clear cling film used in a lot of packaging.
It’s completely organic and lacks any chemicals that would make it harmful to animals if it were consumed, and, best of all, it’s fully compostable and only takes about six weeks to break down in a soil environment.
Every year, the award is given to a newly-graduated engineer or designer who has found an innovative method of dealing with a real problem. In this case, the ever-accumulating amount of our plastic waste.
When she was still just a student at the University of Sussex, she was already interested in finding ways to make use of things that people usually threw away.
During her student days, she made a visit to a nearby fish processing plant. That trip left her thinking about the amount of waste involved n the process. When she finished her visit, she carried away with her a quantity of the waste produced by the plant.
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Hughes says she has always loved the ocean, and she was very bothered by certain statistics such as the idea that by 2050by weight, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish.
About 40% of plastic packaging is only used once before its discarded, and a lot of it eventually makes it way into the oceans. She dreamed of finding a sustainable solution that would allow us to reduce the amount of waste we are throwing away, on the grounds that it’s always better to reuse material than to consume virgin resources.
Which takes us back to the fish processing plant. Hughes devoted her time to trying to figure out what she could do with the material she brought back from that visit, and the result was MarinaTex, which is made from the discarded skins and scales of fish.
It took more than 100 experiments before she found the optimal composition for the material, but the final result is amazing.
Despite its unorthodox source materials, it’s not only safer and more sustainable than petroleum-based plastics, it’s also stronger, making it an even better material for producing things like bags.
Not only does MarinaTex use waste material as its core components, the process of producing is also easy on the environment, since it doesn’t rely on using a lot of heat or use much energy.
The waste from a single Atlantic cod fish is enough to produce 1,400 bags made of new material.
Hughes’ site for the product talks about the values it operates from, and the first one is about form, function, and footprint.
She says that many designers operate with the first two of those factors in mind, but don’t necessarily spend as much time thinking about the last piece.
It’s her firm belief that considering what impact a product will have on the world in general is just as important as how a thing looks or how well it works.
She also points out that a product’s life cycle doesn’t automatically end when it’s disposed of. Some things which are useful for a while can be very difficult to rid of in a way that doesn’t cause problems down the road, like plastics.
As a result, it’s important to think about issues related to waste and disposal as part of the design process.
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Finally, in finding ways to use things once they become waste, designers are contributing to an economy that is circular and regenerative. In other words, waste isn’t worthless.