Ocean fix for our plastic addiction

Technology | Lisa Kao 14 Jan 2020

With environmental awareness growing, the dangers of using plastic, which can take up to 1,000 years to decompose, are being realized.

Many countries have recognized the problem and tried to reduce the use of plastics by imposing taxes on plastic bags or other plastic products.

However, there is still a strong reliance on plastic. In 2018, it was estimated that 40 percent of plastic produced for packaging was used just once and then discarded.

And in 2016, a global population of more than seven billion people produced more than 320 million tonnes of plastic, which is equivalent to the weight of more than 800,000 Eiffel Towers.

Some go for compostable plastics, but neglect the fact that they are not generally suited to existing waste treatment infrastructures.

While people are busy looking for more feasible solutions, Lucy Hughes from the University of Sussex in Britain has come up with a possible alternative, MarinaTex.

"MarinaTex is made from fish waste and can be used instead of plastic film," said the 24-year-old.

"It is translucent and stronger than low-density polyethylene of the same thickness, making it the ideal home-compostable alternative to plastic packaging windows, including bakery bags and sandwich packs."

It is made from fish skin and scales, and uses a unique formula of red algae to bind the proteins extracted from fish waste.

Through extensive research, Hughes found that fish skin and scales were the most promising materials to form the basis of a bioplastic as they contain strong and flexible protein structures.

"To the touch, MarinaTex feels a lot like plastic, but the similarities end there," she said.

"In fact, it is stronger, safer and much more sustainable than plastic."

The organic composition of the material allows it to biodegrade after four to six weeks, and is suitable for home composting.

"MarinaTex can fully biodegrade in home food recycling bins or home composts without leaching toxic chemicals into the environment," said Hughes.

MarinaTex also does not require much energy to produce. "The whole production process uses temperatures below 100 degrees," she said.

As a result, MarinaTex is a possible solution to both plastic and fish waste.

Unwanted off-cuts from the fish processing industry create a huge waste stream.

Offal, blood, crustacean and shellfish exoskeletons as well as fish skins and scales often end up in landfills rather than on plates.

"The material uses waste from the fishing industry.

"This helps to close the loop for a more circular design," said Hughes.

One Atlantic cod could generate enough organic waste to make 1,400 bags of MarinaTex.

Hughes discovered the solution by first looking at the fishing industry.

"Fifty million tonnes of waste is produced annually by the global fishing industry. I believe that there is value in waste and resources can be renewable," she said.

She studied the composition of each kind of fish waste.

"I found that the skins and scales had the most potential locked up in them due to their flexibility and strength enabling proteins."

She also began experimenting with different organic binders from the sea. "I wanted the binder to be from the sea to keep the solution localized, thus reducing transportation."

After conducting 100 different experiments, Hughes finally came up with red algae as the binder, leading to MarinaTex's creation.

MarinaTex, Hughes's final-year project at the University of Sussex, won the school the Best Circular Economy Design award and many others.

Hughes was also the winner of the James Dyson Award, beating students from 27 countries.

"The James Dyson Award received some thought-provoking ideas this year, making the judging very difficult," said James Dyson, founder of the award. "Ultimately, we decided to pick the idea the world could least do without."

He praised MarinaTex for solving the problem of both single-use plastic and fish waste.

"Further research and development will ensure that MarinaTex evolves further, and I hope it becomes part of a global answer to the abundance of single-use plastic waste."

Receiving the reward of 30,000 (HK$300,000), the student from Twickenham is now excited over further research and making MarinaTex possible.

She hopes that this material could be a viable alternative to plastic in various applications.

"This means that the production costs would be low and the production could be applied globally while remaining sustainable," she said.


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