Coping with the hazards inherent in the use of plastic is a huge challenge worldwide. An exhibition at the Design Museum Holon displays state-of-the-art biodegradable materials, including Israeli-made innovations
Naama Riba | Jan. 14, 2020 | 9:23 PM

There is a rising awareness today of the consequences of the increasing production and consumption of plastic. In developed countries, waste sorting is being undertaken on an increasing scale, and there is a growing concern about the deleterious effects of disposable products. Nevertheless, there has been no significant decline in production or consumption. Thus, in 2008, 60 million tons of plastic were used in Europe, and 245 million tons worldwide. Since then, plastic usage in Europe rose moderately, to 64.7 million tons in 2017. There was a decrease in 2018, to 61 million tons. But usage overall is rising, reaching 359 million tons in 2018.

Companies and designers across the globe, understanding the complexity involved in reducing the use of plastic, are working on new directions. “State of Extremes,” an exhibition at the Design Museum Holon, marking the institution’s 10th anniversary, displays biodegradable products and materials, and those in which recycled waste was used.

“Our situation is that we have exceeded the critical mass [of waste production] and we can no longer ignore the problem. Just as we are looking for solutions to reduce consumption, we need to look for solutions of biodegradables at the same level of intensity,” says Efrat Barak, an industrial designer and the director of the Design Museum’s materials library.

A case in point in the exhibition is a bag created by the Dutch studio Officina Corpuscoli, under the direction of the designer Maurizio Montalti. The studio makes products from mycelium, the vegetative part of mushrooms, which consists of a network of webs. Mycelium can be grown rapidly and sustainably on a wide range of platforms, such as agricultural waste. The bag is an example of how mycelium can replace toxic, synthetic plastic (which is based on fossil fuel) in a large number of products and applications.

Ooho is the name of the biodegradable packaging manufactured by the U.K.-based Notpla company since 2018. It’s used to produce edible receptacles from a substance they call “notpla” (i.e., not plastic), made from seaweed and plants. The packages preserve liquids like beverages and sauces, and naturally biodegrade within four to six weeks; they do not leave micro-plastic materials or plastic waste that are liable to remain in the earth for as much as a thousand years. The brown seaweed of which the material is composed is one of nature’s most renewable resources. It grows at a rate of about one millimeter a day, does not compete with other crops designated for human food, does not require freshwater or fertilizer, and contributes actively to reducing the acidity levels of the oceans.

No need to separate

Israeli firms are also represented in the exhibition, among them UBQ Materials, whose manufacturing plant is located in Kibbutz Tze’elim in the Negev. One of the problems in the waste recycling processes we are familiar with is that they require a separation of materials – plastic, glass, packaging, organic waste and so forth. UBQ, founded by Tato Bigio and Rabbi Yehuda Pearl, has come up with a method that dispenses with waste sorting. All the household wastes, including organic waste such as the remains of fruits and vegetables as well as of animal-based foods, are mixed with packaging and plastic items. All the different materials are then broken down into tiny particles and reconstituted into new material. “Plastic is a wonderful material, because it is cheap and light, its transportation is also cheap and it easy to stack,” says Bigio, explaining what makes plastic so attractive to manufacturers and why it is difficult to develop an alternative. “The problem,” he notes, “is what to do with it in the end, because it does not decompose. Recycling today involves sorting, which is not suitable for everyone. The material we developed does not require separation.”

Trucks carrying garbage to landfills are directed to the company’s plant. Bigio: “The manufacturing cost of UBQ is similar to that of regular plastic. We launched industrial manufacturing in the past year, and there is a tremendous demand for the material. Many companies want renewable materials, and we produce reusable material from waste.” The Tze’elim facility can produce only 5,000 tons of the material a year, but UBQ plans to establish additional plants in Europe and the United States.

Another Israeli firm whose products are on display in the Design Museum exhibition is Criaterra Earth Technologies, founded by its CEO, sustainability designer Adital Ela. The firm blends natural materials (plant-based clays and fibers, sands, stone dust) to create items used primarily in construction and architecture. Because the production process does not involve chemical or heating processes, the material can be fully recycled or allowed to biodegrade. The material is as structurally strong as concrete, but its ecological footprint is only 5 percent that of concrete. It provides thermal insulation six times greater than concrete. Its manufacture uses 90 percent less energy than the manufacture of ceramics, and compared to concrete it generates 92 percent less emissions of noxious materials and pollution.

The durability of Criaterra is like that of natural rock, Ela says. Unlike similar materials, she points out, Criaterra does not undergo a burning process. “The material inherently returns to being the natural material from which it was made,” she says. At present, production is small-scale, only a few hundred square meters a month, and the product is relatively costly. However, according to Ela, higher demand will lower the cost per square meter. In Europe, she adds, “The dialogue has changed. They’re already asking fewer questions than we get in Israel about costs, because they factor in the indirect costs, too – of the pollution.”

Some of the solutions presented in the exhibition have been known for years: companies and designers are increasingly turning out biodegradable and recyclable products. Still, green products are not in widespread use. “The plastics industry is very inexpensive, because the technologies have existed for so many years and have been thoroughly studied and optimized,” Barak explains. “Biodegradable and recyclable materials aren’t yet developed sufficiently. Besides that, there’s competition between the materials. In other words, do the new materials biodegrade well enough? Can they be manufactured in quantities and in the color and shape we want? In a way that will prompt the client to make greater use of green materials? Those are the challenges.”

What incentives will help increase the use of green materials?

Barak: “On the one hand, paying bonuses to manufacturers of green products, and on the other, slapping fines on manufacturers and users of polluting materials. Legislation in the European Union encourages reduction of waste and carbon emissions, and fines the use of waste. We need to do the same here.”