Today the issue of ocean plastic pollution is well known. For environmentalists and greenwashers alike, the cleaning of the oceans has become fashionable and esteemed endeavour. As such, most large brands have committed themselves to recycling these plastic materials in their products. These projects however tend to focus on the symptoms of this environmental scourge and fail to address the root causes of the problem. What we should really be asking ourselves is “how can we prevent this problem from happening in the first place?” and “how can this environmental externality create socio-economic opportunities?” There is no evidently simple solution to one of the world’s most complex environmental issues. Nevertheless, we should begin to envisage several long term sustainable solutions involving the use of bio or water soluble plastics.
Although the use of carbon-based plastics will not cease overnight, it is possible to limit their use in various key industrial sectors. Efforts must concentrate on promoting new technologies which will make plastics biodegradable.
Picking up plastics from the ocean may not be the most efficient solution at hand (many micro-plastics will remain in the ocean and will infest the food chain). The Banyuls Oceanographic Station has developed a special strain of bacteria capable directly of degrading carbon plastics and producing byproducts which can be recycled by various industries.
The land bio-based industry is equally committed to producing more bioplastics to help encourage the transition away from carbon plastics. Much like with biofuels however, land bioplastics consume scarce fresh water resources and weaken food production. Despite not being an ideal and sustainable long term strategy for bioplastics, the byproducts of non-food crops and forests could help accelerate the bioplastic value chain.
The oceans should be seen as an enormous biomass reservoir for blue bioplastics, and seaweed-based bioplastics can serve as an innovative and sustainable alternative to carbon-plastics. Furthermore, seaweed helps to absorb carbon and protect the coastline. It has been proven that seaweed dramatically reduces the kinetic effect of waves and currents. Massive reforestation projects therefore need to be organized along Europe’s coastlines. Seaweed is a true gold mine that could support an entire new blue value chain from feed, food, cosmetic, biomaterials and pharmaceuticals. We must be careful in order not to repeat the mistake of the past and develop massive aquaculture in order to prevent the depletion of wild seaweed stocks. Even if seaweed is a true natural beauty, it could sometimes become a plague for tourism. Saragassum is a perfect example. The proliferation of sargassum in the tropical zone is becoming an issue. Given the excessive amount of chemicals present in the algae it is not likely that we will valorize it as a food crop. Therefore, the seaweed can be harvested and transformed into blue bioplastics.
Three French companies have begun to develop seaweed-based bioplastics. Algopack is one of the leading companies working on the issue with a proven concept. Olmix the pioneer is looking to extract seaweed juice to produce biomolecules and use the ‘dry’ residues either as novel cattle-food products (which will require fewer antibiotics) or as high-end ingredients for cosmetic products. Finally, Eranova is deploying its first pilot plant to produce blue bioplastic bags intended for consumer markets.
Microalgae also have promising leads for the development of blue bioplastic starch. Their real potential resides in the DHA and Omega 3, 6, and 9 which they contain. When extracted, the residues can be used for preparing good quality starch. Marine strains must be encouraged in order to stop the unsustainable use of freshwater in bioreactors. A4F in Portugal was the first company to investigate this new direction.
The recycling of waste byproducts generated by aquaculture and fishery industries can also provide innovative bioplastic solutions. Every year, millions of tons of fish scales and shells are thrown away and companies continue to pay exponentially higher garbage disposal fees. We are literally sitting on a ‘blue’ gold mine. These abundant byproducts are the base ingredients for the production of PLA, one of the most important materials required for chitin based blue bioplastics.
Consumers need to be encouraged to think differently. The effectiveness of technological innovation inevitably depends on the consumer’s willingness to accept change in the future. Thanks to the European Commission, most European countries have begun to ban single-use plastics. The real transition however will occur once industries will stop producing non-degradable plastics as a result of consumer pressure.
Why would you buy a cosmetic product that contains plastic microbeads when you can get a product that doesn’t have any? Why would you not prefer purchasing packaging that can be recycled into spa treatment products over a traditional non-recyclable plastic container? Why purchase furniture made of chemically soaked wood when you could go for algae-based furniture which can subsequently be used for animal feed? Consumer demands will drive our society’s evolution and every innovative product that reinforces this responsible, sustainable behavior needs to be supported. One pioneer in the domain is the Blue Coop, which has developed a unique socio-economic model around the use of marine bio-resources.
Back in 2002, the Lower North Shore of Quebec was struck with a fishery crisis resulting from the closure of local crab and cod fisheries. This decision greatly impacted small communities along the Saint Lawrence River, whose livelihoods depended on these two resources. In an attempt to revitalize the region, a small group of women put together a strategy to develop a new, sustainable ‘blue’ industry in the region. The Blue Coop is reinforcing local knowledge, capacity, and leadership by collaborating with global partners. The purpose of the blue circular economy is to develop chain links between different industrial sectors. For instance after the algae, sea cucumbers, star fish, and crabs has been harvested and processed, the waste should be used to create fertilizers or blue biodegradable plastics. As such, the Blue Coop has put together an integrated model with various pillars: awareness raising and education (from elementary schools to university); development of partner networks (provincial, national, and international level); integration and creation of business clusters; and mapping of local assets to optimize the use of available resources and infrastructure.
The Blue Coop is now partnering with BioMarine in order to extend its scope and share its model with other maritime regions. The environmental applied research that is being used will bring high-level quality blue products to the region’s industries. Networks and collaboration with external communities will be crucial for developing the region, exploring new synergies, defining best practices, and securing sustainable partnerships. Connecting marine-based bio-economy cooperatives can provide an excellent platform for bringing together community leadership, researchers, policy makers, industry groups, and investors in order to develop sustainable economic models around blue bio-resources for remote maritime communities.
Our BioMarine community is strongly committed to improving the sustainable use of marine ingredients to develop innovative end-user products that will shape future societies. Yet consumers are ultimately responsible for signaling technology providers what they wish to buy and consume. Stronger bonds between blue bio-industries and regular industries will help solve most of today’s global commons issues, but only education and awareness raising campaigns will steer consumers towards a more sustainable and responsible society. We have no time to waste in endless discussions to determine who is responsible! We all are! It is now time to act in a coordinated manner and unleash the blue potential.