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Extreme Materials #2: Should we stop using Plastics altogether?

While maybe theoretically wanted, this solution isn’t necessarily practical or entirely needed. However, there must be a correlation between the qualities, characteristics and lifespan of a material, Plastic in this case, to its use.

From waste to a new material, UBQ Material colors. Credit: UBQ Materials

*"Plastic" is a general popular term that refers to a very large group of synthetic materials, professionally known as ‘polymers’, after the type of molecules they are consisting of (Not all polymers are 'plastic', but all 'plastics' are polymers). For this post, I will use the term 'Plastic' to describe this group of materials.

One field in which plastic is used extensively, and also produces vast amounts of waste, is packaging and single-use products. Think about it: How many plastic parts are in one cup of iced-coffee we grab, sometimes every day, on the way to work? How long do we use this cup? 10-30 minutes? After the coffee is dune, where do these plastic parts go? This thought mat be uncomfortable, but the majority of these products, even when thrown into the garbage, will end up in open fields and finally in the ocean, they will not disintegrate for centuries. Is it a cost worth the pay of a few minutes of coffee?

To solve this problem, we, as consumers, can reduce consumption and use reusable products instead of disposable ones. A very relevant example for it in the current pandemic time, is using a washable reusable PPE instead of single use ones.

However, more sustainable solutions for this problem need to be wholesome, thoughtful and systematic. Designers, Engineers, Manufactures, Marketers and Legislators must strive to find these kinds of solutions.

Here are two of the fascinating material technological developments designed to solve this problem, that are featured in the "Extreme Lab" category of "State of Extremes" exhibition, step in.

TIPA food packaging and inspiration. Credit: TIPA Corp

Inspired by Nature One of the most interesting and useful sources for solutions is the natural world. In the last few years, there has been a rapid development in the fascinating field of Biomimetics, which focuses on learning natural phenomena and applying this knowledge to the development of new structures, materials, technologies etc. In the case of environmental problems, it seems even more likely to find the solutions in the natural world, since generally natural mechanisms has successfully managed to sustain the earth balanced and healthy for millions of years (that is, until the Industrial age).

For example, when we look at food packaging, we know that nature has a simple solution – fruit in its peel. Many of the natural foods we eat have a peel that protects their content and enables the transportation of the food when needed.

Fruit peels are made of materials that will disintegrate in time, in compost conditions or when touching the ground and become nutrients for others. This inspiration was the starting point for the Israeli company TIPA for developing a new packaging material, which will disintegrate the same way a fruit peel does. This packaging material is now featured in the exhibition as well as in the library’s material collection. It is a flexible, transparent sheet material, manufactured in a variety  thicknesses and  finishes. It has a long shelf life, it can be sealed, printed on and it is completely degradable in compost conditions within six months.

TIPA's material is extremely interesting because of its ability to overcome common challenges in the field of bioplastics. From our experience in the Material Library, this is the right kind of solution needed when aiming to create a practical sustainable material. In the past, using sustainable materials meant compromising on the visual and tactile quality of the product, while still paying more in comparison to common plastics. However, here we see a 100% degradable bioplastic with strong visual and tactile qualities, which is also compatible for printing. This creates a real competition to non-degradable, petroleum or bio based plastics, which can be implemented in a wide variety of applications. Some world leading food and fashion brands (such as Natoora and Stella McCartney) are already using this TIPA's packaging.

Starting with shredded unsorted household waste and ending with a new polymeric material. UBQ Material

All Organic Another inspiring solution exhibited in "Extreme Lab" is UBQ Material, which holds its secret in its source. UBQ is a polymer material made of unsorted organic household waste, manufactured in a unique patented process. It is suitable for manufacturing of a wide variety of products using common plastics industry processes.

'Unsorted' means all organic household waste is used as the source for this new material: fruit & vegetable, paper, plastics, diapers, textiles and many more. The unique process results in a new raw material, unified in its molecular level and suitable for manufacturing. Organic materials are carbon-based materials, originating from live matter (plants and animals). Plastic is organic and so is UBQ material, therefore it is also fully recyclable using the same process it was created in.

When it comes to plastic recycling many solutions are relatively expensive and results in low-quality materials. This creates a sad reality in which large amounts of plastic waste is not recycled, even in cases where initial sorting is conducted by the end-user (eg. recycling bins).

Unlike many known recycling processes, this revolutionary process offers a new perspective for the use of waste, overcoming common challenges such as sorting, which is not needed here. In this case, there is no need for separating different types of plastic. Only inorganic materials are extracted from the mix. UBQ material can be mixed and combined with different polymers and additives. It was developed by the Israeli company UBQ Materials.

Cost There is also a positive financial long term aspects for creating materials out of waste or using biodegradable materials. Instead of buying new raw materials that originate from sources that are slowly disappearing, we can use waste as a source which is abundant and may cost the manufacturer very little to nothing. Using waste as raw material may even produce revenue by itself in cases where appropriate legislation is made (taxes etc.). In the case of biodegradable materials, redacting the amounts of waste also means redacting the size of waste management operations in the long run. The development of this sort of technological and material abilities, along with supportive legislation, enables the creation of a positive environmental-financial model (circular economy). This will reduce the colossal amounts of untreated waste in the world while saving non-renewable resources and creating a better life environment for all.

*This article was first published at Design Museum Holon's Magazine

For more information about "State of Extremes" exhibition click here

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