I didn’t choose to work with chitin in the first place. All I wanted to do is find a solution to biodegrade the plastics we have and possibly transform them into something new. Since I was interested in the ways nature has already found to tackle this plastic problem, I researched all the natural phenomenon that scientist had found so far. One of them was the ability of mealworms to digest and degrade styrofoam, which was proven in a study by Stanford University in 2015.
Fascinated by this I decided to do more research on these little worms, that are actually the larva of a beetle, and found out, that they are seen as one of the main solutions to another problem we have these days: feeding a growing world population. Europe actually changed enacted a bill at the beginning of this year (the novel food act) that made it legal to sell insects as staple foods and now there are big companies farming these worms and selling them as a protein source for both, humans and livestock. Looking deeper into this and starting my own little farm, I realized that in order to breed worms, you need to grow beetles, since they are the ones that can mate and lay eggs for the next generation of worms.
So what are these farms doing with all of these beetles, after they have lived their two-months-life? In most cases, they throw them away and I decided that I wanted to close that gap in their production cycle.
I remembered from biology class in high school, that beetles were mainly made out of chitin and that it is the second most abundant biopolymer on this planet and appears in nature in many different forms with a wide range of properties, which makes it a fantastic material to create bioplastics from.
I ended up creating a biodegradable bioplastic from the chitin that the mealworms produced by simply living on styrofoam and thereby found a way to transform a not biodegradable plastic into a material that will not destroy our future on this beautiful planet.
The main challenge in the circular economy for me was the problems with plastic recycling and the pollution that follows it. I was devastated when I found out that only 9% of the plastics worldwide were actually being recycled and realized that there seemed to be a fundamental design flaw when we started to make products with a lifetime of minutes from a material that takes up to centuries to fall apart. It simply seems ironic to me, that we created a material that strong and now use most of it in packaging, where it is actually made to be ripped and thrown away.
That’s why I wanted to create packaging, with a focus on foils, because plastic foils are especially hard to recycle.
And on the other hand, as mentioned in the question before, I wanted to close a gap in the production process of an industry, that is going to grow a lot within the next years. I saw it as a chance to introduce a technology to create its own packaging from its waste material and thereby slowly introduce bioplastic from chitin to other products as well.
As the next step for my project, I’m going to Eindhoven to work with Precious Plastic, a wonderful project that set out to tackle the plastic pollution. As part of the “Beyond Plastics” Team, I am going to develop the project further and work on other alternatives for plastics and scenarios of their use as well.
Moreover, I set up www.plasticula.com as a basis to share my research and the insights it brought me so far. My plan is to turn the homepage into a space of shared knowledge in the next months so that everyone who wants to work on something like the bioplastic and concept I created can use my work and maybe skip a few of the research steps I had to go through. Working on this project made very clear to me how vital it is for a sustainable project to work with as many people from different disciplines involved as possible.
That’s a tough question, but I think that as a designer I have a certain responsibly towards what I create and what happens to it, when it ends it’s lifecycle. Which always brings us back to the materials it is made out of. There are many different ways to tackle this task and you can probably never check all the checkboxes, but I myself try to stand back a little and ask as many people who are involved in the objects life as I can for their insights.
I think as designers we play an important role in the circular economy agenda since we are the ones creating the objects, planning their lifespan and their afterlife.