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Biodegradable is not enough

16 August 2019

The full picture needs to be considered when evaluating biomaterials, beyond biodegradability and performance. Is it scalable to collect the material? Is it local? How long can the product be used for? Is it non-toxic? After its use, is it recyclable?

It's an exciting time for material development in the area of both renewable and waste resources. As Professor Chris Cheeseman at Imperial College puts it, “Waste is just raw material that hasn't yet found a use.”

There are many possibilities where, at least in the current waste collection system, material production is improbable in urban scenarios – which is unfortunate, as cities produce so many waste streams. An interesting example is Eskilstuna in Sweden, where the municipality mandates that consumers separate food waste, paper packaging, metal, plastic, and newspapers. This particular model provides a waste stream with a relatively 'clean' mixed food waste stream that could be utilized in various ways beyond composting, but this is uncommon. The more separation of materials, the more opportunity.

A progressive municipality, Eskilstina provides the color-coded waste collection bags (made from plastic). Glass is also recycled, but consumers bring it to the local facility themselves. Interestingly, adjacent to the recycling facility is ReTuna, the world's first mall that only sells recycled, reclaimed, and sustainably produced products.  

While much progress has been made in the development of biomaterials with agricultural waste from rice, coconut, and palm leaves, the majority of consumers seem unaware of the intercontinental shipping, energy, and fuel oil required. A bamboo keep cup and palm leaf disposable plate come with an oily price tag. It follows that the next evolution of product manufacturing, as well as biodegradation or recycling, need to focus on locality. 

The longer the use, the more sustainable an object becomes. Luxury goods, where the value of the objects prolongs their lives, is an interesting example of this. But there might also be a place for guilt-free disposables, where materials are produced with low energy processes and later biodegraded, supplying nutrients, or quickly recycled with low energy processes. In Asia, there is a long history of leaves functioning as food packaging. In India, locally made Chai clay cups, used once, are returned into the earth.

During DDW at VEEM, I will be showing Biophilica, a material that is plant-based, local, biodegradable, and recyclable. Please come by and continue the discussion.