How did it get to this point? The answer is surprisingly niche and starts with the shortage of billiard balls in 1869 in New York. The game had become mega-popular at the time. Ivory (what billiard balls were made of) was running short and elephants were becoming endangered.
To quickly solve the problem, a $10,000 dollar reward was promised to the designer who could invent a synthetic billiard ball. An inventor named John Wesley Hyatt took up the challenge and tried mixing solid nitrocellulose, camphor, and alcohol under pressure. A material called celluloid was born.
As it turned out, celluloid wasn’t great for billiard balls (it caused them to explode!); Hyatt never won the prize. But Hyatt was on to something which escalated quickly. Celluloid soon became the starting point for the mass production of plastic and the “plastic age” as we know it today.
Now more than ever, we need forward-thinking designers to come up with sustainable solutions to turn this plastic tide. If frustration about the billiard ball shortage is enough of an incentive to invent something radical, the survival of our planet should be able to inspire new solutions 100 times faster. Designers are absolutely crucial here as 80% of the environmental impact of a product is decided in the creation stage.
Luckily, more and more brave and forward-thinking designers are starting companies that make investors want to jump in.
Lori Goff is an American-Dutch biochemist and the CEO of Outlander Materials based in the Netherlands. Goff invented a compostable plastic alternative called UnPlastic. It can be made of food industry streams and waste products, like wastewater from beer brewing. Not only is it an alternative to plastic waste but it also protects our foods from going to waste. Speaking of circular!
Outlander Materials was one of the winners of the What Design Can Do No Waste Challenge in 2021 and has been moving swiftly since. UnPlastic’s technology is validated in the lab as well as in industrial production environments.
Did Goff know what she was getting herself into as an entrepreneur?
Goff: “I had absolutely no idea what this path would bring. It’s not an easy road and there is a lot that comes with making a product market ready – there are constant ups, downs, and twists coming your way. So my first recommendation to other designers and entrepreneurs is to ‘Embrace the suck!’ This means that even though it’s going to be difficult, painful, and confronting, you can still enjoy the process. Let your purpose propel you forward, the process and result might just be life-changing and worth every moment.”
At this stage, Goff and her team of five are working on establishing a pilot production facility that could produce up to 14 tons of material annually. We’re talking big scale here. Packaging trials can require anywhere from 100s to more than 2000 meters of packaging material for one single test run!
Over in Hamburg, Germany, a startup called Traceless is also making strides. Traceless was founded in 2020 by Dr Anne Lamp and Johanna Baare – their team of around 30 people is developing a new generation of plastic-free biomaterials.
Traceless uses by-products from the agricultural industry to produce a holistically sustainable biomaterial that provides the beneficial properties of plastics while being fully bio-circular. Even though they are bio-based, they do not compete with food production.
The pressing and molding techniques they use are similar to how the first cellophane was created, but this time with natural molecules. What’s particularly interesting about Traceless, is that the company distributes the material in granulate form – instead of making it into an end product like a cup or a wrapper. This way, plastic, and packaging companies can process the material themselves into whatever products are needed; from rigid coatings to flexible films, using standard converting technologies.
Companies like Outlander Materials and Traceless are just the start of the material revolution. They are all inspiring examples of plastic alternatives that are gaining momentum and driving change toward a healthy planet.
So what’s really needed for the material transition to accelerate? Goff has some things to say about this.
Goff: “The biggest roadblock right now are governments and heads of industry. Yet they are the most effective path to bringing real solutions to the market. Look at the green energy transition that is now increasingly supported by national leaders, regulations, and tax incentives.”
It’s time for the material transition to gain similar momentum. If laws, policies, and funding schemes are set in place, plastic alternatives can become mainstream faster.”
Another point that Goff stresses is the need for collaboration between startups and traditional large companies.
Goff: “To move innovation forward, it’s important to partner up with the big guys as early as possible to co-develop a product that can truly be scalable. At the end of the day, this is about a collective shift and we need to do it together”.
So governments, industry professionals, and investors listen up. Designers are the innovators, builders, and visual creatives we need. We need their curiosity, innovative minds, and circular thinking to come up with the most functional, most beautiful, and most sustainable solutions that herald a new era.
Let’s make sure the Age of Plastic will be the shortest we’ve ever known.
This article has been written as part of the Make it Circular Challenge of What Design Can Do.