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Rethinking Plastic

Amber Waste is Bliss

Material research using amber by-product — © Agne Kucerenkaite

Agne Kucerenkaite makes bioplastics and biocomposites with the residual flow from the production of jewelery and small objects made of amber. Amber is very expensive, but tons of amber dust disappear down the sewer because the industry sees it as a low-grade material.

Sources of amber waste

Amber is fossilized tree resin derived from extinct resin-bearing trees. It belongs to the organic semi-precious stones. The scientific community doesn't agree on whether amber should be considered a mineral or a fossil. Fossilization of the resin takes millions of years. Although deposits of amber occur throughout the world, amber from the coast of the Baltic Sea is the best-known. Because amber floats on saltwater, many pieces wash ashore on the beaches of Poland and Lithuania. Worked amber is dating back to 11,000 B.C. Amber was widely believed to have magical healing powers. It was and is used to make varnish, incense, decorative objects, jewelry, and medicine. The production of jewelry and carving is usually done by hand with tools such as saw, fine-toothed files, drills, diamond disks, and sandpaper. After crafting amber there is left a huge amount of by-product and waste called amber dust. It can accumulate in tons and just a small amount of it is being sold. Mostly because it is contaminated with sandpaper and thus the value is lost. It is disposed into dumpsters or even sewage.

Issues

Today around 90% of the world’s amber comes from the Baltic region. China is amber’s biggest market. Within 5 years amber prices increased by 800-1000% because of the Chinese demand. The good-quality amber from the Baltic region is sold to China, leaving an imported lower-quality amber. Amber mining and processing have caused widespread environmental degradation. More than 100 million tons of waste have been discharged into the Baltic from the Yantarny mine in Kaliningrad over the past century. The high Chinese demand caused the establishment of the black market, which is primarily located in Ukraine, Russia, and Burma. The mining technique itself completely decimates the soil, making it incapable of sustaining plant life. In the past three years, it’s estimated that over 2,000ha of Ukrainian land has been destroyed by illegal mining. By comparing fossils of the species and ecosystems in amber, scientists are starting to tackle giant questions about extinction, conservation, and the evolutionary history of the species we see today. Though thousands of specimens do find their way into the hands of scientists, many more are put to industrial or decorative use.

Material research

Amber is a natural bio-resin, which is becoming soft at 150 C degrees and starting to melt at 250-300 C degrees. A full scope of material research is conducted by softening and melting the amber dust, creating methods, analyzing properties, deconstructing it by adding new biomaterials and binders, altering its properties, and changing colors. Amber is transformed into a completely new material to create a range of usable more cost-effective interior products, such as panels, tiles, and furniture parts. The great inspiration is The Amber Room, which is a reconstructed chamber decorated in amber panels located in the Catherine Palace near Saint Petersburg. Constructed in the 18th century in Prussia, the original Amber Room was dismantled and eventually disappeared during World War II. Before its loss, it was considered an “Eighth Wonder of the World”. A reconstruction was installed in the Catherine Palace between 1979 and 2003. Currently to decorate the interior with amber would come with an extremely high cost, but it could become possible with a transformation of the amber dust.

The project is supported by Creative Industries Fund NL.

About Agne Kucerenkaite

Agne Kucerenkaite works with raw materials and waste, transforming them into valuable products, methods and systems, seeking interaction between design, society, industry and environment.

Material research using amber by-product — © Agne Kucerenkaite

Material research using amber by-product — © Agne Kucerenkaite

Raw amber pieces — © Darius Petrulaitis

Amber dust waste