Plastic is probably humanity’s biggest failure. Even today hundreds of millions of tons are produced, despite the risks it entails, for humans and ecosystems. The solution is biomaterials, substances obtained from organic elements (from fruit to plants, to mushrooms), biodegradable and potentially zero-impact.
Let’s find out why today it is increasingly necessary to identify these types of solution and why some companies have already focused their core business on biomaterials.
The huge problem of plastics
In spite of good intentions and proclamations, the creation of plastic does not seem to stop globally. Historically, the production of this material has established itself in the first decades of the twentieth century and has not stopped growing until at least 2010. Estimates tell us that plastic production has grown from 1.5 million tons, globally, from the 1930s to the 280 million tons in 2010, with a 38% growth in the last 10 years of the reference period. Statista also reports that in 2017 the figure has risen further to 348 million tons.
According to the portal, the greatest growth in recent years has occurred in non-European countries: in 2002 global production was in fact 200 million tons (almost half compared to today), but Europe has contributed to this growth “only” for 8 million tons.
The quantity of materials deriving from the oil that we put into the environment, therefore, becomes abnormal. According to UNEP, the UN environmental program, 8 million tons of plastic waste ends up in the oceans every year, an enormous amount of material that will remain there for decades, if not centuries. A plastic bag takes 20 years to degrade, while bottles and cutlery can take up to a thousand years.
In reality, the problem is even more serious than it seems: in nature, nothing is created and nothing is destroyed. In fact, the plastic objects that end up in the sea do not fade but turn into microplastic. These are very small fragments, which have a diameter between 330 micrometers and 5 millimeters, and therefore even more easily end up in the stomach of fish and other animals that feed on fish.
According to a 2017 report quoted by FAO, microplastics were recorded in 12 of the 25 most common marine fish species. National Geographic cites some experiments that show how microplastics are capable of damaging aquatic creatures. Not just fish, but also turtles and birds. These substances block their digestive channels, reduce the need to eat, alter the normal dietary habits of the fauna, reduce the growth of the specimens that ingest them, as well as their reproductive capacity.
Biomaterials, the choice of the future
In reality, plastic, however enormous, is just one of the problems that affect materials. The search for more sustainable solutions, for example, also concerns construction: the cement industry, to mention just one case, is responsible for the release of 2.8 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year. Similar problems are also felt in the fashion industry.
The solutions are biomaterials or organic materials. The term should not be confused with the type of chemical compounds that are used for the creation of prostheses and in other medical applications: in this context, in fact, synthetic materials are also meant.
For industrial applications, biomaterials are instead a type of organic substances, which can effectively replace compounds commonly used such as plastic or cement, and which meet the criteria of the circular economy.
Some examples of this type of material, already marketed, will help us better understand what it is.
5 examples of biomaterials on the market
We talked about the unsustainability of the fashion market, which pollutes the waters (with the synthetic substances used) and disperses enormous quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere. One example is cotton: to produce one kilogram, 10 thousand liters of water and about three kilos of polluting chemicals are needed.
To respond to this problem, several companies have arisen offering organic fabrics or recycled materials. Among these, the Italian Orange Fiber, which uses the by-products of the citrus market to make their own fabrics. In 2011, Adriana Santanocito has the idea of exploiting a large amount of waste from the citrus sector of Sicily, to obtain a material suitable for creating clothes.
The idea becomes concrete with the support of the Milan Polytechnic and the collaboration of her friend Enrica Arena. In 2013 she patented the process and two years later she created the first pilot plant: Orange Fiber was born.
In detail, the Sicilian citrus fruit waste is processed into cellulose in Trinacria before being shipped to Spain. Here, the cellulose becomes yarn. The resulting product returns to Italy, to Como, where it is woven with silk and cotton, obtaining a satin and poplin. However, the company also produces a 100% Orange Fiber, light and similar to viscose.
The fabrics of the Sicilian company are now used by some of the most famous fashion brands in the world: recently, for example, Ferragamo launched the Responsible line precisely using the innovative material of Orange Fiber.
From Sicily to Sardinia with there are Luisa Cabiddu’s innovative building biomaterials. With her company, Cabiddu builds “organic” houses, using highly innovative materials: the Senatore Capelli organic wheat straw and clay are directly produced by the company (and constitute about 90% of the materials used by Cabiddu), while the wood and lime come from a short and controlled supply chain. The materials used to reduce waste production to the minimum while cutting the necessary energy costs. Cabiddu produces its own houses in straw, taking care of the whole process, from design to construction, but also realizes straw and clay bricks that she sells to third parties engaged in green building.
Ecovative and Mogu
Among the most interesting branches in the world of biomaterials are companies that exploit the great properties of mushrooms. Ecovative, in particular, exploits the mycelium, the “body” of the fungus, consisting of filaments called hyphae.
Ecovative is a New York-based company that created the Mycelium Biofabrication PlatformTM, developing a series of sustainable materials, biomaterials with different industrial and consumer applications.
Ecovative is for example known for having created a particular packaging for IKEA, based precisely on the mycelium, with zero environmental impact. DELL also used the same type of product for its packages.
However, the US company is also a sort of research laboratory, which investigates all the possible applications of biomaterials derived from fungi. For example, today it is conducting an experiment to create “synthetic meat”, aimed, one day, at building a cleaner food industry.
Also in Italy, there are companies dedicated to innovation in the field of organic materials derived from mushrooms. An example is MOGU, which is also dedicated to the development of mycelium-based technologies, to obtain materials that are not only sustainable but also with higher performance than those currently on the market.
MOGU also does not confine its production to a specific sector but focuses on projects with different destinations. Today the company mainly markets biomaterials for construction: flooring, thermal insulation panels, sound absorption modules, and so on. The company is currently in the research phase for faux leather, made with limited amounts of resources and without waste.
Wood is not always a sustainable choice for construction. In fact, there are products on the market, such as chipboard, where in reality the various fragments of wood are linked together by formaldehyde, a flammable substance that can cause irritation to the respiratory tract and potential carcinogenic effects.
To offer a more sustainable choice to consumers, NU Green has created a new plywood, called “Uniboard”. The panel is made of 100% recycled or recovered wood fibers. In particular, the company uses renewable fibers such as corn and hop stalks and does not use formaldehyde in the production process. This means that it uses “waste” from other agricultural productions, without resorting to the destruction of existing forests and forests, nor to the cultivation of trees for this purpose. This results in a reduction of carbon dioxide emissions in the environment, as in lower exploitation of the land.
Hempcrete is a particular material derived from industrial hemp (the one without psychotropic effects, so to speak). Its name derives from the English hemp, precisely hemp, and concrete, cement. This biomaterial consists of a mixture of hemp, lime, and water.
Its application at the industrial level has not been yet implemented on a large scale (also due to the legislation of several countries, which prohibits the cultivation of hemp). However, there are some interesting experiments. Designer Anthony Brenner, for example, built the first hempcrete house in 2010, in the United States. In addition to using materials with low environmental impact, the house built with this organic material has low levels of energy consumption and a reduced cost of realization.
The main characteristic of hempcrete is that it is a carbon-negative material. This means that in its production, application and use phase, it “imprisons” more carbon dioxide than it is necessary to put into the atmosphere.
This happens because the hemp stem, during its different growth phases, attracts a quantity of carbon dioxide equal to twice its own weight. Moreover, once implemented in homes and other buildings, the hempcrete continues to sequester small amounts of CO2 from the surrounding environment.