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Agar Plasticity: The Exciting Potential of Seaweed-based Packaging

New Japanese design studio AMAM (Kosuke Araki, Noriaki Maetani and Akira Muraoka) work with agar, a seaweed-based material to develop new and more eco-friendly ways of packaging goods. Their current ongoing project is called Agar Plasticity and it was one of the four finalists at the 2016 Lexus Design Awards.

Today, many of our goods arrive wrapped in synthetic plastics. In 2012, 288 million tonnes of plastics were produced worldwide with more than 36% of these plastics being used for packaging. And as we know, these synthetic plastics are not biodegradable, causing a big problem in terms of ocean pollution and overflowing landfills. Finding a material alternative to synthetic plastic is the motivation behind Agar Plasticity.

What is Agar?

Agar is traditionally consumed as a food in Japan for making sweets. It is also widely used in the scientific and medical fields.

As a raw material, Agar is derived from seaweed – specifically, two different kinds of red algae that grow and are harvested worldwide. Agar is extracted by boiling this red algae. When cooled, the liquid sets like a jelly. It is then frozen and air-dried naturally. Throughout this process, water melts away while the structure of the agar remains.

Agar is sold in its dried state in the form of blocks, flakes and powders. Block agar is particularly notable for its porous, feathery structure and is very light weight despite its volume. These features led the team to experiment with agar as a packaging material.

Material Experiments:

As part of Agar Plasticity, AMAM have to date worked on three different agar-based material experiments: Firstly, using pure agar powder itself, secondly, combining agar powder with extracted red algae fibre and finally, by mixing agar powder with shell ash, which is a waste product from the food industry.

#1 Agar Powder

In this experiment, the agar powder is dissolved in hot water and poured into a mould. It is then frozen, thawed and air-dried. The freezing process expands the agar, forming a spongy structure which acts as cushioning.

Through countless experiments with different agar concentrations and freezing speeds, AMAM have managed to produce a thin transparent film, a loose-fill cushioning material and a box with integrated cushioning.

#2 Agar Powder + Extracted Red Algae Fibre

Here, AMAM developed a composite material using the same process as the above experiment – dissolving, moulding, freezing and air-drying agar, but with the addition of algae fibre.

Using different concentrations of agar and algae fibre, AMAM were able to attain different material hardnesses and thicknesses. The team explain this composite could for instance be used for wrapping flowers, as cushioning, packaging for plant pots and wine bottles, or moulded to make boxes.

#3 Agar Powder + Shell Ash

For this experiment, AMAM visited Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, located at northern east from Tokyo, in order to investigate the current shell waste situation. Shell waste produced by food industry is another serious environmental issue. Each day, tons of shells are being dumped as waste, resulting in huge disposal costs for farmers.

In Japan, ash from shell has traditionally been used for ‘Shikkui’ wall finishing in both exterior and interior designs, but recent trends towards more modern interior finishing materials have decreased the traditional demands for ash.

A mixture of water and shell ash alone cannot be formed, however, by adding agar, the composite becomes mouldable. The constituents of Shikkui are shell ash, chopped straw and Funori, which is also a kind of seaweed. The resulting composite is almost the same as the traditional product, however the usage of agar makes it mouldable. It can subsequently be formed into complicated shapes, or it has a potential to be extruded.

AMAM imagine that agar and shell ash could potentially even be utilized as a building tile, particularly as shell ash has some intriguing material properties of benefit to the built environment. For instance, shell ash is said to condition humidity and purify the air, absorb toxic substances and deodorize. Furthermore, when burned at over  900°C, shell ash offers anti-bacterial properties.

Disposing of Agar

After use, agar products can be disposed of in an environmentally-friendly way. In addition to decomposing naturally, these products can be utilised as a material for improving the water retention of soil or fertilizer as agar absorbs and holds watr very well. Should agar packaging end up in the ocean, it is not harmful to the environment or animal life.

What else could be made of Agar?

So far, AMAM have produced just a selection of products and packaging using the amazing plasticity of agar. Ultimately however, they envision replacing plastic products such as shopping bags, cable ties, toothbrushes, cutlery and ballpoint pens with agar.

AMAM are currently looking to collaborate with partners from industry who can offer scientific support in order to uncover the true potential of agar.

We look forward to following their journey!

 

Els Zijlstra

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