Bioplastic made from lobster shells leads wave of material innovation

Among a new crop of environmentally-focused material projects is a “freshwater-free fabric” and a bio-iridescent sequin made of wood cellulose.

London-based Shellworks, which has created a plastic alternative derived from waste crustacean shells, is a finalist in the Arts Foundation’s 2021 Materials Innovation awards.

The remaining three finalists include Elissa Brunato and her bio-iridescent sequins, Julian Ellis-Brown and his fabrics made from saltwater plants and Shneel Malik who has worked on a waste-filtering wall tile.

The four finalists are now competing for a £10,000 prize to fund their practices as part of the annual competition.

Established in 2014, the competition aims to encourage the creation of new materials by engaging an “in-depth study of both material life cycles and their impact on the environment and people,” the foundation says.


“Turning waste lobster shells into bioplastic”

Shellworks is made up of Insiya Jafferjee, Amir Afshar and Ed Jones, who all studied at the Royal College of Art (RCA) together. According to the lab, the project was inspired by two facts: that only 9% of all plastics are recycled globally and that there is 63bn tonnes of plastic waste on the planet.

Its solution is a bioplastic extracted from fermented seafood waste. Chitin, a naturally-occurring polymer, is found in products that are often wasted including seafood, insect shells and fungi walls. Shellworks extract and process chitin to create a multi-use material.

An instructional video shows the process of “turning waste lobster shells into bioplastic”. It demonstrates how it can be vacuum packed and used for sheet packaging, while the cycle’s waste products can also be used as a plant fertiliser.

The project aims to be a viable commercial product but also increase public awareness about material use, according to the design team.


“Freshwater-free fabric”

London-based Julian Ellis-Brown has been highlighted for his work with SaltyCo, an innovation team co-founded with students at the RCA and Imperial College.

The flagship product is a “plant-based fibre fill” which could be used in the fashion industry, SaltyCo says.

The “freshwater-free fabric” is made from plants that can grow in saltwater, which is unlike many plants that rely on freshwater such as cotton. 97% of the Earth’s water is saltwater and the product aims to make us of these environments.

After it is grown in saltwater, the fibre is extracted for us in the clothing industry, though other applications are being explored, according to SaltyCo.


A sustainable sequin alternative

Brunato’s bio-iridescent sequin

Elissa Brunato, who won a Design Week Rising Star award this year, has been nominated for her work in textile design. Her iridescent sequins are a response to the microplastic pollution caused by sequined garments and accessories.

In 2019, Oxfam reported that 7m sequinned pieces ended up in landfill over the festive period. Brunato’s more sustainable designs are made from wood cellulose, which is a plant-based polymer.

Malik’s biomimicry-inspired work

Biodesigner Schneel Malik is the fourth finalist, known for her wall tile which cleans polluted water using microalgae. The Indus tile is inspired by biomimicry and is currently being exhibited as part of Beazley Designs of the Year at the Design Museum.

The product was designed to “empower small scale artisan workers in underdeveloped and developing countries” by treating their contaminated water, the Arts Foundation says.


“Tackling the exploitation of our planet”

The designers were chosen from a longlist by a panel of experts including design writer and curator Priya Khanchandani.

She says that the finalists are “united in their exploration of design as a medium for tackling the exploitation of our planet, which has been driven by consumption”.

“I can see so much potential for the objects that surround us every day be transformed by these new forms of materiality,” Khanchandani adds.

The winner will be announced on 27 January 2021 at an online celebration. While the first prize winner will take the £10,000, the three runners-up will all receive £1,000 awards for their practice.

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