Could seaweed save our oceans? The short answer is: yes. In fact, next-generation bioplastics could decrease pollution, increase biodiversity and improve the lives of coastal residents too.
We’ve all seen the images – whales with stomachs full of plastic. Sea birds with plastic milk bottle rings stuck around their necks. Fish swimming through a haze of plastic particles in our once-pristine oceans. Petroleum-based plastics are having a huge – and devastating – impact on our planet.
But, Professor Peter Ralph isn’t the type to surrender in the face of an environmental catastrophe. In fact, the Director of the UTS Climate Change Cluster (C3) and founder of the Deep Green Biotech Hub is working with his team to devise an unlikely – and revolutionary – solution that has the potential to transform coastlines and marine environments across Southeast Asia.
SEAweed-Tech (the SEA stands for Southeast Asia) is a collaboration with NetWorks™ at the Zoological Society of London. Together, they aim to develop an innovative green industry for coastal seaweed farming. The project hinges on the development of novel, zero-waste green chemistry to produce seaweed-based bioplastics, initially in the Philippines where there is already large-scale seaweed farming.
These bioplastics have the potential to reduce future plastic waste, encourage local environmental stewardship of marine environments, and deliver a new income stream for seaweed farmers in the region.
“Our goal is to reduce the quantity of ocean plastic pollution by delivering an eco-friendly alternative,” explains Peter. “By making plastic biocompostable, if it’s put into waste then it won’t remain there for thousands of years; it’ll break down and dissolve.”
It’s an ambitious initiative, and one that’s making waves in the global innovation space. In the next two years alone, SEAweed-Tech could directly engage 2500 families in Indonesia and the Philippines and extend current seaweed farming practices to include seaweed-based products for bioplastics.
By 2022, more than 1 million people could indirectly benefit from the research, and more than 100,000 hectares of the ocean could be better protected.
So, how are these next-gen plastics made? SEAweed Tech bioplastics are made with gel-based chemicals (phycocolloids) that exist in seaweed. The seaweed derivatives can replace the conventional petro chemical-based raw materials for the production of many current plastics. They’re extracted from the seaweed using a zero-waste, non-toxic process developed by Peter and his team that produces high yields. That’s a big change from existing phycocolloid extraction techniques, which often produce harmful waste products that are damaging to the environment.
What’s more, the technologies required to produce these bioplastics are being made specifically for use in Southeast Asian countries. The same countries that are among the hardest hit by marine plastic pollution and where many seaweed farmers struggle to make a living selling seaweed to the food industry.
SEAweed-Tech provides farmers with an alternative product market by equipping local farmers with technology and expertise to sell partly-processed seaweed materials into new local supply chains. It’s an entry point into a global industry that produces an estimated 4 million tonnes of bioplastics every year – a figure that’s set to double or even triple – by 2025.
Peter Ralph (right) is part of a team working to produce seaweed-based bioplastics. Photo by Jesse Talyor
“To get to a place where the globe is ready to support a population of 9 billion, we need to deliver technologies that are transportable and translatable to the needs of developing countries. I think this project is a classic example of how that can be done,” Peter says.
As well as creating a new income stream and the opportunity to reduce future plastic waste, the initiative also encourages long-term, local environmental stewardship of marine environments.
“We’re bringing the process chain back to the local community where the seaweed is grown, so the farmers are making a higher-value product,” explains Peter.
“The ultimate goal is to have our bioplastics produced in the Philippines and for the manufacturers to also make a margin on the process.”
It’s an ambitious project, but one that aligns with Peter’s clear-eyed focus on a sustainable future for our planet. That’s a goal that he and his colleagues in C3 (the largest algae biotechnology research program in the southern hemisphere) have been working towards for many years. And now, Peter believes it’s more achievable than ever.
“In the next five years, I want to see the development of an Australian algal bioeconomy,” he says.
“I want to see industries that are de-carbonising and using sustainable raw materials for a broad range of industrial processes. I want to end the use of fossil-based carbon sources that are currently needed for industry production.
“I’d estimate that there are 20 industries that we’re currently engaged with that are transitioning to using sustainable, algal-based carbon compounds, so we’re already on the way, but we’re not there yet. Continued investment in research will be critical in achieving this goal.”