Alternative to Plastic for Packaging

Plastic container discards floating in oceans are an ugly sight and troubling environmental issue; scientists are exploring better ways to assure a cleaner future. That includes exploring materials that are earth-friendly and can replace plastic.

GOOD noted that “even with significant recycling efforts, plastic cannot—unlike aluminum and glass—be recycled over and over again. Plastic is also notorious for its resistance to decomposition, with estimates placing its life cycle somewhere between 500 and 1,000 years. Concerned about the implications of using so much plastic, a new Japanese design company, AMAM, is developing a more earth-friendly way to package goods.”

Namely, AMAM is exploring an alternative to plastic which uses agar, a substance from algae. The big news for AMAM this month is that its efforts have resulted in the group being announced as the Grand Prix winner of the Lexus Design Award 2016.

The announcement was part of Milan Design Week. Lexus stated on April 11 that AGAR PLASTICITY, a project that explores using marine algae in packaging, won the grand prize at its annual design competition. This year’s award attracted 1,232 submissions from 73 countries, said Vogue.

The description of their winning entry was that “AGAR PLASTICITY is a project exploring how agar, a gelatinous material obtained from marine algae, can be used as an environmentally friendly packaging material alternative to plastic.”

Potential of their agar material may extend beyond packaging, too. Araki said that “It can serve as a material to improve the water-retention property of soil.”

In their promotional video, the design trio said the key to their success was in allowing agar to harden as a material that they would then work with.

In the team’s own words, articulated by Araki: “Goods are usually shipped wrapped in plastic materials. Once unwrapped, they soon become waste or are collected to be recycled.” This got them to thinking about alternatives.

Talking about the team’s efforts, he said, “Seaweed-derived agar is traditionally consumed as food in Japan, and used in scientific and medical fields worldwide. Sold in a dry state, agar shows porous, feathery structure and is very light despite its volume. These features led us to explore its possibility as packaging material.”

Anne Quito, who covers design and architecture for Quartz, talked about what may be next: “AMAM hopes to find a partner who can bring their invention to the market. The team tells Quartz that their first experiment was a success, successfully shipping a fragile bottle from Japan to Italy cushioned with the agar material.”

AGAR PLASTICITY: A Potential Usefulness of Agar for Packaging and More, which uses agar (a gelatinous material obtained from marine algae) as an inexpensive, abundant, flexible, environmentally friendly packaging material which can be used instead of polystyrene. More than 1,200 designers contributed work to the competition, which provides funding, mentorship, travel and exposure for the winners. The top 12 were present in Milan, and we had the opportunity to spend time with the top four, including AMAM Design Collective. We appreciate Lexus’s commitment to design and young designers in particular, and were impressed with the work we saw. Of the AGAR PLASTICITY project, Kosuke Araki from AMAM tells us that the material isn’t exotic for Japanese people as it’s often consumed as food (most often in confections) there. “It’s common to us, but not to European people,” he said. “The starting point of our project was really our concern about plastic waste… The property of the material led us to the design itself, because the material quality is crispy, but spongy; hard, but also soft. It’s really suitable for packaging.” Like so many of our favorite designs (and indeed world-altering inventions) the process was pragmatic and simple, he says, “By changing the concentration of agar with water the outcome is varied. If you use less agar, the result is thin and flexible; if you use more it is harder or more cushioned. We just tried trial and error.” The AMAM team also mixed agar with seaweed fiber, and shells, both abundantly available waste products. Each provides an agar-based material with different properties, lending itself to thin wrapping, cushiony packaging and extrudable material that hardens. With their various experiments with materials, concentrations and temperatures, AMAM created packaging akin to plastic bags, packing peanuts and much harder packaging.