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Why MarinaTex is making waves

  • Made of fish waste and red algae, this home-compostable bioplastic can degrade into the soil within weeks of disposal
  • Product design student Lucy Hughes, 24, the creator of MarinaTex, envisioned it as an alternative to single-use plastic

Lucy Hughes holding up a sheet of MarinaTex.
Lucy Hughes holding up a sheet of MarinaTex. (Photo: Reuters)

Every year, the global fishing industry produces around 50 million tonnes of fish waste in the form of offcuts, with the fish processing industry in the UK accounting for 172,207 tonnes annually. Now, a product design student from the University of Sussex may have found a way to put this waste to good use.

Lucy Hughes, 24, is the creator of MarinaTex, a home-compostable bioplastic, envisioned as an alternative to single-use plastic and made from fish waste (such as scales and skin) and red algae. It was recently awarded the international James Dyson Award for 2019, an annual award for design engineers who create innovative solutions for real-world problems.

The packaging industry is a significant consumer of plastic, most of which is single-use. In an introductory video from the James Dyson Foundation, Hughes explains how a reluctance to use “virgin natural materials" led her to this waste stream. “Typically, we design in quite a linear way. So, we take things from the earth, we make something with it and then we dispose of it. I challenged myself with starting with a waste a resource (the fish waste), it is plentiful and it’s ongoing," she says in the video.

To keep her solution localized and minimize transportation costs, Hughes visited a New Haven-based fish processing plant and wholesaler, where she identified different kinds of waste, including offal, blood, crustacean and shellfish exoskeletons, fish skin and scales. Hughes found the greatest potential in fish scales and skin, given their “flexibility and strength enabling proteins". The next step was to find an organic binding agent. This included options like chitosan (from crustaceans) and agar (from red algae). A Reuters report explains that to create “a strong and stable compound", Hughes added the molecules of chitosan and agar to her scales-and-skin mixture. She arrived at a refined outcome after more than a hundred experiments. According to an official news release, the material is “relatively resource-light, requiring little energy and temperatures under 100 degrees to produce".

“MarinaTex is particularly suited to single-use applications and this is because it takes between four-six weeks to decompose in a home compostable environment," Hughes explains in the video. She says the use of waste from the fishing industry helps “to close the loop for a more circular design". Since the material is translucent and biodegradable, the most impactful alternative applications, says Hughes, were single-use plastics like bakery bags and sandwich packets.

One of the key factors that makes MarinaTex different from other bioplastics like, say, PLA (polylactic acid), is the time and conditions it needs to biodegrade. MarinaTex can fully biodegrade in your home, in food recycling or compost bins. It doesn’t leach any harmful toxins into the environment as it breaks down. On the other hand, PLA, which is derived from renewable materials, can only be composted in specialized industrial conditions. According to the award website, MarinaTex has also “shown to have a higher tensile strength than LDPE (low-density polyethylene)", a commonly used thermoplastic.

The Reuters report says Hughes plans to use the $41,000 (around 30 lakh) prize money to further develop the product and build a strategy for mass production. “Why do we need to have hundreds of man-made polymers when nature has so many already available?" she is quoted as saying in the Reuters report.

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