Could algae become the plastic of the future?

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 on the top of water or even in seaweed structures often called macroalgae. Algae can be found anywhere where there is water. Lakes, ponds, oceans, rivers and sometimes snow.

Why use algae for creating plastic?
Since the beginning of plastic in 1907, the usage of this material has continued to increase each year and has helped completely revolutionise packaging, product, electronics, construction and more. However, it has come at a hefty cost. 381 million tons of plastic are produced each year and the majority of it ends up in landfills and later in our oceans. The industry has led to pollution on ridiculous 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 with these statistics steadily rising. This is due to items like water bottles breaking down and releasing microplastics into our bodies without notice. The facts are clear and they represent a devastating problem we have caused, so it’s about time an idea like plastic made from algae comes into play. Algae is one of the very few organisms that can be used to produce a new eco model of plastic that is unrecognisable from the traditional model which uses petroleum. There are many companies already creating plastic products containing algae and the organism has shown to work splendidly, demonstrating that this idea can be done.

What is Bloom?
Bloom is a relatively new company that has begun creating parts for shoes from algae that would have traditionally required conventional plastic. While other companies are also trying out this new method, Bloom is certainly standing out as one of the top dogs. Bloom has been manufacturing 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. However, what stands out about Bloom to myself and others, is that they have taken the approach of collecting their algae from local rivers, ponds and lakes that have been affected by excessive algae growth, thus helping the environment even more, unlike many other companies who are producing their algae from inhouse.
Bloom uses a simple machine that helps it collect large amounts of algae. The machine has multiple pipes acting like vacuums that suck up the algae with a screen at the beginning of the pipe to avoid wildlife getting seriously injured. Once the algae are collected, the next step is to extract the algae from the water, so the thin liquid turns into more of a thick green sludge. Bloom believes on average the system can filter 175 gallons of algae water per minute and finish up with around 300 pounds of the green organism 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. It said that it could easily tell you how much carbon dioxide (CO2) was stored in the shoe and how much water was cleaned. The CEO believes each sole removed around 8 grams of CO2 out of the atmosphere and cleaned around 17 litres of water!

Why use algae?
Algae has many hidden benefits that other organisms simply can’t compete with. To start with, it grows 10 times faster than traditional plants grown on land, it requires around 10% less land. Products containing algae break down in around two months and strangely, it doesn’t require as much water compared to crops grown on land. Algae can also be quite bad for the environment (this will be touched on later) when too much of it clogs up in rivers, lakes, ponds, etc so removing portions of it to then turn into eco alternative products like plastic would be a win-win scenario for both us and the environment.

The truth around why other ‘green’ plastics aren’t sustainable:
Other ‘green’ ideas that have been suggested like plant-based plastics made from predominantly corn and sugarcane, still have major issues that algae plastic just doesn’t appear to have. A perfect example would be, plant-based plastic (corn, sugarcane, etc) which relies heavily on agriculture, an activity that makes up 19% of all emissions yearly. So, if all conventional plastic was to be immediately changed to that 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. This would result in a minimum of 61 million hectares of additional land needed and at least 688.8 billion cubic meters of water which is around 60% more fresh water than the entire consumption of Europe annually.

Is too much algae bad for the environment?
According to experts, too much algae in lakes, ponds, rivers, etc can lead to large
consequences for the environment. When algae is in the water, it sinks to the bottom and decomposes. When it decomposes, it begins to release all the nutrients back up to the top of the water and over time, with sunlight and water, the algae is able to grow again. This pattern can continue forever. As algae decomposes, it will also produce methane (CH4) which is around 84 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide (CO2) over a 20-year time span. Over time, algae can lead to contamination of water and oxygen depletion. As the algae floats on the surface of the water, it also blocks tons of natural sunlight, which is also bad for the lake, pond, river, etc. With oxygen depletion and the contamination of water, organisms like fish and plants can be deeply affected and will most likely die. This can then impact our health with contaminated waterways and the consumption of fish that may have died from the excess algae.

The process of turning algae into plastic:
The process of turning algae into plastic can vary from company to company depending on the product being manufactured, but the majority of processes are very similar to the process written below.
The first step is to collect all the algae into large bags, barrels, etc where the content will then be grinded using a specific machine. When this is taking place, the algae is transforming from a thick liquid into more of a powder similar to that of flour for example.
Then the powder is blended with plastic to create hot strings that look like black spaghetti and then are cut by a blade into tiny pallets. The pallets are then stored in a bag to be sent to customers. This is a very similar process to making conventional plastic as everything that is manufactured using plastic, starts with tiny pallets.

Is plastic currently still required in the production of algae plastic?
Currently, the production of plastic products using algae instead, like Bloom shoe soles are not made from algae alone and do still require 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, recently Bloom said they created a shoe sole with far higher algae content than the current pairs they produce today. Other companies are also trying to increase the algae content within their traditional plastic alternative products but currently, the algae content on average is around 30% to 40% for most companies. However, the algae content is expected to increase over the upcoming years as the efficiency of using algae increases, therefore lowering the cost. Currently, it cannot be done, but algae could soon completely replace plastic.

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

So, could algae become the future of plastic?
Algae has the benefits of growing rapidly, breaking down quickly and not requiring large amounts of water and land. Many factors other green alternatives like plastic from corn starch or sugarcane simply cannot compete with. Algae comes in many different shapes and sizes providing us with an incredible number of options for manufacturing. Converting the algae to green plastic is also a rather simple process, turning the green, thick sludge into plastic unrecognisable from the traditional model. If this model of plastic reached an industrial scale, thousands and potentially millions of waterways, lakes, ponds, etc could be saved from excess algae benefiting us as well as the surrounding wildlife and life within the water. With the horrific amount of plastic waste dominating our environments and killing millions of animals each year, a solution must be found. Thankfully, we have algae.

Released on the 22nd of October 2021. -KJDJ

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