Let’s face it. Despite our best efforts and intentions there’s trash everywhere. It’s in our oceans, polluting our drinking water and rendering arable soils toxic. Facing the reality of ubiquitous pollution, I wanted to design for unavoidable 'bad behaviors.' Littering a Big Gulp or accidentally dropping a lighter wouldn't be such a problem if they were made with materials meant to degrade in the environment. I set about finding trash where it isn't supposed to be and culturing out wild bacteria found alongside it. If trash is going to make its way into nature, then shouldn't nature benefit? I aim to design a system that allows for materials to end up 'out of place.'
The challenge of working with plastics in our environment requires a circular approach. Consider that biomaterials have their origin in healthy soils. From there, we engineer and design products using these new materials. Whether these products are tossed to the curbside, composted or possibly even flushed; they all will come into contact with existing bacteria in our ecosystem. Bacteria is the ultimate end user. This work outlines how Human-Centered Design along with Bacteria-Centered Design can allow us to Design for the Waste Stream.
Experiments: Phase I
Swab the streets
To test my concept, I went outside to collect samples of bacteria that were living underneath bits of trash in the city.
Can our Combined Waste Water System Provide an Opportunity to Degrade Bioplastics Before they Reach our Natural Waterways?
Due to the large bacterial populations living in the waste water stream there is potential to digest emerging pollutants, including bio-based waste-- bioplastics-- before they reach our oceans.
Experiments: Phase II
Launch Bioplastics in Nature
I launched bioplastic products in the canal to observe their decay when abused by the elements. I used two samples. The first, IKEA's ISTAD plastic bag, made from sugarcane polymers. The next, a children's toy marketed as 100% biobased.
How Can one Identify a Bioplastic Product from another Plastic Product?
How to Dispose of Bioplastics?
Where do we put bioplastics when we're finished with them? I asked my mom to see what she thought.
If we're putting materials into our environment despite our best efforts, not only should these materials degrade in nature, but they should also be able to provide some benefits in the process. To start to understand where out of place waste enters our landscape, I researched and visited the local landfill, recycling center and the state's two largest waste water treatment facilities.
Experiment 3: Will Bioplastics Degrade in Existing Bacteria Populations in Bite-Size Portions?
Bioplastics and the Waste Stream
How might we facilitate consumer access to responsible waste streams for bioplastics?
Bioplastics are slowly replacing petroleum-based plastics in certain specialty markets. Consumers like the idea of a non-toxic product made without the use of fossil fuels. But, what is the best way to dispose of bioplastic wares? Recycle? Compost? Will it break down outside? Throw it in the trash and hope it will decompose in the landfill? (This never happens, by the way). The answer is that it depends. Like traditional plastics, bioplastics can be complicated and so can be their disposal.
Bioplastics are not a panacea for our oceans or soil. They will contribute to our already polluted waterways before making their way into the bellies of wildlife and clogging our streets and wild spaces. This will continue unless we address the way they breakdown in our environment and propose very clear, very specific methods for their decay.
I propose a new class of bioplastics that are bio-based, biodegradable AND compostable. You will know them when you see them. These new plastics will share a common attribute allowing consumers to understand without a doubt that this particular cup or straw or compostable bubble wrap will degrade just as well in their home compost as it would in the streets and eventually in our oceans.