Is algae the future of plastics?

What are algae?
Algae is a simple organism that is mostly aquatic, nucleus-bearing or photosynthetic. It is a dark green plant that contains no roots, stems, vascular tissues or leaves. This organism can be found in multiple different structures like single-celled phytoplankton that sit above water or even in seaweed structures called macroalgae. Algae can be found anywhere where there is water; lakes, ponds, oceans, rivers and even snow.

Why use algae for creating plastic?
Since the beginning of plastic in 1907, its usage has continued to increase year by year, revolutionising packaging, product, electronics, construction and more. However, it’s come with a profound cost. 381 million tons of plastic are produced each year; the majority of which ends up in landfills and oceans. The industry has led to pollution on unfathomable scales and caused millions of deaths worldwide from marine life to even ourselves. The average person consumes 5 grams of microplastics each week and around 20 kilograms in a lifetime; due to items like water bottles decomposing and releasing microplastics into our bodies.

The facts are clear and they present a devastating problem we have caused. Nevertheless, algae are one of few organisms that can be used to produce a new environmentally-sound model of plastic – unrecognisable from the traditional petroleum-based.

Bloom is a relatively new company that creates parts for shoes from algae that would have traditionally required conventional plastic. Bloom manufactures soles for shoes made with around 45% algae content. Recently the company partnered with a minimalist running shoe company in London called Vivobarefoot to create a shoe called the “Ultra 3 water shoe” using the algae plastic sole. Unlike other companies seeking out algae from in-house operations, Bloom collects algae from nearby water reserves affected by eutrophication – helping preserve the ecological status of aquatic ecosystems.

Bloom uses machines that collect large amounts of algae. The machine has multiple vacuum pipes that absorb algae. Once the algae are collected, it is extracted from the water, turning the water-based content into green sludge. Bloom believes, on average, the system can filter 175 gallons of algae water per minute or about 300 pounds per day. The filtered clean water is later disposed of back into the lake, pond or river.

Bloom says that it can calculate the environmental impact the algae shoe sole has compared to a plastic shoe sole on a gram-per-gram basis. The CEO believes each sole removes around 8 grams of CO2 from the atmosphere and cleans around 17 litres of water.

Why use algae?
Algae has benefits other organisms can’t compete with. To begin with, it grows 10 times faster than traditional plants grown on land and requires around 10% less land. Products containing algae break down in around 2 months and don’t require as much water compared to crops grown on land. It’s important to note, algae can also be harmful to the environment (this will be touched on later) when too much of it is present in rivers, lakes, and ponds so reducing concentrations for plastic production will benefit both the consumer and the ecology of aquatic ecosystems.

The truth about other “green” plastics:
Other “green” plant-based plastics are predominantly corn- and sugarcane-based and still cause considerable issues. Case in point, plant-based plastics (corn, sugarcane) rely heavily on agriculture; an activity that makes up 24% of global emissions. If all conventional plastic was transitioned to a plant-based model, the world would require around 54% more of the world’s corn production and 12 times the global production of castor beans. Resulting in a minimum of 61 million hectares of additional land and at least 688.8 billion cubic meters of water; around 60% more fresh water than the entire consumption of Europe annually.

Are too much algae bad for the environment?
Too much algae in lakes, ponds, rivers, etc can lead to large consequences for the environment. When algae are in the water, they sink to the bottom and decompose. After decomposition, the nutrients are returned to the surface and, over time with sunlight and water, the next generation of algae begins. This pattern continues forever. As algae decompose, methane (CH4) is also produced which is about 84 times more dangerous than CO2 over a 20-year time span. Over time, algae can lead to water contamination and oxygen depletion. As algae float on the water’s surface, it also blocks natural sunlight. Coupled with oxygen depletion and water contamination, organisms like fish and plants die.

Is plastic currently still required?
Currently, the production of plastic products using algae instead, like Bloom shoe soles are not made from algae alone and still requires the use of traditional plastic. Currently, Bloom‘s shoe soles are made from around 45% algae and the other 55% are a mix of plastics and other materials. While this is certainly far from perfect, Bloom recently announced the creation of a shoe sole with superior algae content than the current pairs they produce today. Other companies are also increasing the algae content within their traditional plastic alternative products, however, the algae content is around 30% to 40% for most companies on average. Nevertheless, the algae content is projected to increase over the coming years as the efficiency of algae usage increases, therefore lowering costs.

The predicted growth of the algae plastic industry:
The algae products market is expected to grow by around 6.7% from 2020 to 2027. This would mean by 2027, the value of this industry would be $1.3 billion AUD ($967.3 million USD). This isn’t nearly as much as the plastic industry which is currently worth around $1.8 trillion AUD ($1.2 trillion USD). However, in countries like Australia, the predicted growth of traditional plastic is slowing down and not expected to grow at the algae products market rate; a clear sign that the demand for greener alternatives is ramping up.

Converting algae into plastic is a rather simple process; turning thick green sludge into plastic unrecognisable from the traditional model. If this model of plastic reaches an industrial scale, potentially millions of waterways, lakes, and ponds could be spared eutrophication – saving many small ecosystems. Our abusive use of one-time products is bad enough, coupled with the toxic chemicals and EDCs present in petroleum plastic, is making for an environmental horror show. We ought to do something to rectify the situation. Lo and behold, algae.

Released on the 22nd of October 2021. -KJDJ
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