Producing biomaterials is one of the possible alternatives to combat the spread of waste plastic in the natural environment. The principle consists of “deplasticising”, by introducing alternative reusable materials onto the market. We met David Coti, the president of Algopack, a company based in Brittany, France that produces and sells bioplastics based on brown algae. Credit: ©David Coti
Credit: ©David Coti
What are the benefits of bioplastics from an environmental perspective?
Every year, 300 million tonnes of plastics are produced, of which at least 8 million end up in the ocean, a figure representing 450kg of plastic every second. So how can we reduce the production of plastic right from the start, and limit the pollution of our oceans? Our idea consists of using a resource that comes from the ocean: algae. If we think in terms of cradle-to-cradle1 , algae that have been transformed into packaging material can return to the ocean, where it will not take years to decompose. This is beneficial for the entire marine ecosystem, and for animals in particular. There is no longer a risk of the plastic strangling turtles or being ingested by fish, and therefore, by humans. It is also a resource that naturally captures CO2 and produces oxygen, which improves the oxygenation of the water.
How do you produce this substitute for plastic?
We grow brown algae, which are very fibrous, together with scallops and salmon, etc. We are currently setting up a pilot project. It is still under development and consists of drying and chopping the algae, then mixing it with a plat-based powder, before micronisation, which reduces it into pellets. These pellets form a 100% plant-based, biodegradable and compostable that we transform ourselves. When we sell this material, it is mainly used to make products that need to degrade quickly, such as flower pots that can be planted directly in the soil, enabling the plants to benefit from the algae’s fertilising properties. But we also make algae-based products that we condition and waterproof for a longer lifespan, including displays or supports.
We also sell another bioplastic with the same transformation properties as traditional plastics, but only contains a maximum of 50% oilsourced compounds. These solutions developed using plant chemistry help to limit the use of fossil resources. The scope of use of bioplastics is just a broad as that of conventional plastic. Credit: ©Algopack
Can we expect to see large-scale production in the future? What are your paths of development?
Today, our pilot plant produces a few tonnes of biomaterials per year, but we have set ourselves the target of 50,000 tonnes per year in five years. We are currently industrialising the process, but the machines capable of meeting our needs do not exist today. Our job consists of developing new means of production that make the best possible use of this resource, in particular through new procedures to dry the algae that prevent all the properties, and especially the fertilising properties, of this living organism from being lost. But we still need to gain a better understanding of our raw material. Algae can also be used in food, cosmetics, medicine and agrochemicals, as well as a biomaterial. Each of these applications calls on specific properties of the algae. We are looking to improve our understanding of this broad scope of applications in order to optimise the use of this material.
A book, a film or a person who changed your perception of oceans?
I would choose the activist Paul Watson, the founder of the Sea Shepherd NGO, for his strong actions, the risks he takes and his capacity to unite. And Nicolas Hulot for his remarkable understanding of environmental issues and the work he has accomplished in raising awareness and lobbying politicians.
Some recent news about the oceans that gave you hope?
On 1 July 2016, France outlawed plastic bags. This is a positive step. And more generally, since the COP21, I think that awareness has risen in many large companies, resulting in concrete actions. This is important, because they influence public opinion.
A prediction: what will the oceans look like in 20 years?
The oceans will be more of a resource that will be valued and respected, rather than just a shipping lane. We will learn more about them through exploration.