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Fishy Alternatives To The Maligned Plastic Bag Must Be Redesigned To Invoke Real Behavior Change

by Andrew Capper on 10/15/2020 | 7 Minute Read

Back in those silent lockdown months, humanity suffered, but nature? Not so much. 

Pollution plummeted, waterways cleared, elusive animals emerged to explore urbanized areas once thronging with human activity. Nature thrived. 

But another pernicious, human-made by-product of the pandemic came to be, polluting our oceans and entering our landfills with so-called "covid waste." Then, at the height of panic buying, when securing an online food delivery slot became as arduous and competitive as purchasing a Glastonbury or Coachella ticket, the function of opting out of plastic bags was removed from shoppers. Now, a time-saving measure found implementation to prevent the spread of germs.

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This year’s Plastic Free July came at a time when, only recently, real headway was starting concerning plastic packaging. The UK chancellor’s March budget this year included a tax on plastic packaging containing less than 30% recycled content. Last year, sales on single-use carrier bags in supermarkets were down 90%. Yet where circumstances have temporarily forced us to regress on such progress, now is an ideal time to rethink plastic—and its sustainable alternatives—completely. 

Our behavior as consumers needs to radically change alongside the myths and misconceptions around “Bags For Life,” paper bags, and cotton totes that energize the behavior—not least because of the sustainability credentials of those plastic bag alternatives are nothing short of, well, fishy.

How so? Paper bags might seem like a great alternative to plastic, yet its carbon footprint is three times bigger than single-use plastic due to the energy required to turn fibers into paper. Bags For Life sales might have increased by 1.5bn (according to Greenpeace figures), yet the majority of consumers’ ingrained behavior of purchasing new bags at the checkout each week has not shifted. Meanwhile, cotton totes seem ideal – if only the crop from which the material comes from did not require such intensive watering and consumption of energy. 

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Yet it is not without irony that a sustainable alternative to plastic bags is of the sea—bags made from fish scales, algae, and crustaceans could potentially cut greenhouse emissions by 25%. But all such innovation in materials amounts to nothing without design that drives sustainable, impactful human behavior change. In short, the plastic bag must be redesigned—not just in terms of composition, but in the way it facilitates positive interactivity. 

Could crustacean-based carriers be the answer to the plastic bag conundrum?

Here’s the thing—alternative materials do already exist. Bioplastics are getting made from all sorts of crops and what would be typically considered waste. Supermarket Co-op has fashioned compostable bags from corn starch, whereas Ikea bags use the same idea but with sugar cane. Fish scales, algae, and even CO2 gas get harvested to make alternatives to petroleum-based plastics. 

If produced at scale, this could potentially have a meaningful impact on our pollution output. For example, if the US shifted all its petroleum-based plastic to bioplastic, it would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25%. 

Perhaps one of the most radically innovative of these materials is lobster plastic. A genuine by-product of the shellfish food industry, shells that would typically go to waste can, instead, get turned into a biodegradable, carbon-neutral plastic called chitosan. It comprises the substance that makes up the exoskeletons of crustaceans and can get transformed into a thin, durable, and flexible material that acts as a sustainable alternative to single-use plastics. There are drawbacks, of course—extraction of this source is both time-consuming and expensive. 

Yet, even with this barrier to adoption, the real challenge isn’t necessarily the manufacturing processes or the required abundance of various biopolymers needed to displace the problematic incumbent. The technologies are already available to mitigate the continued effects of climate change. It is our behavior that is the pivotal issue here—and is something that needs to be seriously addressed if sustainable, meaningful impact is to come about.

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The provenance of materials, by and large, are invisible to consumers. Some retailers and brands have tried to circumvent this issue and foster a greater appreciation among their audiences for their efforts made in offering up plastic alternatives. “I AM NOT PLASTIC” screams Avani Eco’s carrier in a block-capital typeface. “This carrier bag is made from CASSAVA, 100% compostable, BIODEGRADABLE, certified toxic-free, RECYCLES with PAPER, DISSOLVES in water. This is NOT a plastic bag,” shouts another. But how far do consumers, beyond the few, tangibly care? 

Perhaps the question isn’t about the number of consumers who care, but about how far they can go with sustainability in mind. 

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It all starts with transparency. These alternatives must be attractive and affordable to get genuine, widespread buy-in. Most importantly, something within the design of the material or product itself needs to be cast in such a way that it comes attuned to our ingrained, everyday habits, so much so that sustainable choices are almost an unconsciously made decision. 

To future-vision such a reality isn’t as pie in the sky as you might think. We can see how this could potentially manifest in the revolution of the much-maligned plastic bag by using sustainable, sea-sourced materials that underscore provenance (although not through screaming block cap text). 

And they can be beautiful as well.

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Banana Leaf Bags

Bananas are one of the largest food harvests in the world. So it makes sense that its by-product—banana leaves—should be used as packaging material. The leaves are durable, glossy, waterproof, and lightweight. A bag woven from these would last but would still easily compost naturally at the end of its life. 

By weaving thin strips of the banana leaves together, we can create a flexible, durable Bag For Life that can pack down small when not in use and expand as needed. Each bag would be unique, given that it comes from a natural, randomly growing material, and the vivid green leaf color would evolve and mellow with age, becoming a badge of honor for long ownership.

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Fish Scale Polymers

University of Sussex graduate Lucy Hughes developed a compostable polymer made from fish scales and skin. Dubbed MarinaTex, it breaks down within 4-6 weeks in your average domestic compost—it's the perfect material to replace virgin plastic in packaging that is typically single-use.  

Around 50 million tonnes of fish waste gets discarded annually, but the creation of sustainable bags finds a new use for it. The fish skin and scales are the most suitable for a bag application due to their flexibility and strength properties, even stronger than LDPE commonly used in plastic bags! 

Our concept design celebrates the nature of fish scales with their kaleidoscope of silver iridescent colors. The durable bamboo handles come built to last, and once the compostable bag gets worn out, you can replace and reattach a new one to the handles. Simply toss the old bag in the compost heap when you're ready to say goodbye. The concept is combining the looks of a durable handbag with the innovative fish scale polymer for a premium, design-led feel that is aesthetically striking (by shopping bag standards, at least) and nods to its sustainable provenance. 

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Algae Plastics

Algae is one of the fastest-growing organisms on the planet and could offer a triple-whammy of sustainable benefits. Not only is it a potential alternative to single-use plastics, but it can sequester carbon as it grows. 

Seaweed, kelp, even spirulina are all part of the algae family and are already being used for bio-degradable straws, some single-use packaging, and even in sneaker soles. Seaweed grows abundantly throughout the world’s oceans growing up to 1m per day. It doesn’t compete with food crops, doesn’t need fresh water or fertilizer, and it actively contributes to de-acidifying our oceans. 

We envisage a design that celebrates seaweed’s natural pigment, texture, and pattern in this concept algae bag. Designed to embody the material at a molecular level, this is a single-use bag that replaces the incumbent. Part of the issue with current Bags For Life is that we often forget to bring these to the shops with us but consequently accumulate a mountain of them at home as we re-purchase. But, even if the consumer leaves the bag in their car, the negative environmental elements that come with this repetitive behavior improve. Once at home, these algae alternatives are a mess-free solution for collecting food waste. And, given that it’s compostable, you’ll never see a plastic bag mountain emerging from your store cupboard again.

The bio alternatives to single-use plastic bags are both innovative and exciting to those already actively interested in sustainability. However, to ensure that meaningful change occurs, the real challenge is designing with behavior and desire in mind. Design needs to account for our human fallibility, despite our good intentions. Design needs to be sustainably sound in every sense – from the cradle to the grave. 

And, critically, design needs to be beautiful enough for consumers to engage with it, even if it is ultimately disposable in the end.