Could there be a future for plastic made from… algae?
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Plastic pollution is a huge, global problem. Could part of the solution be turning to environmentally friendly, biodegradable plastics? French company Algopack, based in Brittany, has made a business out of turning brown algae into plastic.
Based in the seaside resort town of Saint-Malo, Algopack is a small company with four employees. Rémy Lucas founded the company in 2010.
Algae, an alternative ingredient
Plastic is traditionally made from petrol. Petrol reserves are being depleted worldwide, so companies have to look deeper to find it, which is expensive, not to mention that it has catastrophic effects on the environment.
Even if some plastic is recycled, a lot of it gets thrown away. It’s estimated that several hundreds of kilos of plastic are thrown into the sea every second [Editor’s note: according to a study published in the journal Science, between 4.8 and 12.7 millions of tons of plastic were tossed into the sea in 2010, which is equal to between 150 and 400 kilograms per second]. This plastic gets broken down into micro particles, which are then swallowed by fish and thus enter the food chain. Many animals also choke on plastic bags.
That’s why, for the past few years, we’ve been seeking ways to make plastic using other ingredients than petrol. A second generation of plastic has already been developed using bio-materials, maize in particular. But I don’t think that using agricultural products to make plastic makes sense. We are already facing growing food insecurity reflecting a growing global population.
So I wanted to launch a third generation of plastic, made from algae.
My family is from the northern part of Finistère [Editor’s note: an administrative department in Brittany, which is located on France’s west coast]. My family has been harvesting algae for two hundred years, so I understand its purposes. I also worked in plastics manufacturing for 15 years, where I specialised in the development of biomaterials. So these two parts of my life came together in the development of plastic from algae.
I set up a workshop in my garage where I started analysing the make-up of different algaes. Then, I used the tools common in plastics manufacturing to transform them. I ended up patenting my invention and starting a company.
How do you make plastic from algae?
To make our plastic, we use different types of algae, all from the brown algae, or phaeophyceae, family. We cultivate our own algae to avoid depleting the marine ecosystem. Algae doesn't consume much water and you don’t need fertilizer or pesticides to grow it. They also capture carbon dioxide.
We cultivate the algae on a 12-hectare area in Saint-Malo and north of Finistère but we also run sites in Portugal, Ireland and Norway.
We don’t cultivate all of our algae in the same place in order to protect our supply. For example, if a storm destroys one area, we still have others.
Once we’ve harvested the algae, we transport it to our factory in Saint-Malo. There, we break down the algae into tiny, one millimetre granules using a mechanical and thermal procedure. This process doesn’t require much energy and doesn’t produce waste. Last year, we produced 100 tonnes of granules.
We sell our granules to about 20 different plastics manufacturers, who use them to make different products, including USB drives, toys, glasses frames, key chains, road signs, food packaging and lamps, to give a few examples. These objects are biodegradable. If they are in the ground, they will decompose in 12 weeks. They are also compostable.
[Editor’s note: In 2014, Algopack sold the granules for 1,200 euros per tonne, which is close to the price for traditional plastic. The company didn’t want to give its current prices]
Our plastic made entirely from algae is called "Algopack". We also produce another kind of plastic called “Algoblend", which is 50% made of algae.
A possible solution for the sargassum epidemic?For the past several months, several Caribbean islands have been invaded by sargassum, a brown algae that has a nauseating odour when it decomposes on beaches (Click here to see the episode of the Observers Direct where we investigated this issue).
Green chemistry is a branch of chemistry that focuses on sustainable product design that minimizes the use and generation of hazardous substances. Rémy Lucas says that this branch of sustainable science could provide an answer to the sargassum epidemic.
We’ve performed enough tests to know that it is possible to make plastic entirely from sargassum. We need to organise how to harvest the sargassum and locate a site where it could be transformed into plastic. If all goes to plan, we’ll be able to start using sargassum to make plastic this autumn.