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The seaweed solution

Is seaweed-based packaging the answer to the scourge of ocean plastic?

Environmentalists will tell you the
scourge of the world’s landfills, oceans and waterways is plastic. In particular, it’s discarded plastic bottles and those plastic rings that hold six-packs together. According to National Geographic, of the whopping 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic the world has produced, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. And of those 6.3 billion tons, only 9% has been recycled, which means 79% of the world’s plastic ends up in landfills and, ultimately, the oceans.

A report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a U.K. non-profit, predicts that “by 2050 the world’s oceans will contain more plastic than fish,” if the dumping continues at its current levels.

Grocers contribute to this pollution because of the huge amounts of plastic-wrapped food and beverages they sell, including bottled water. They sell
these items because of shopper demand, of course—yet it’s a bit of a mystery as to why many consumers still choose to regularly buy bottled water.

With some exceptions, bottled water is virtually unnecessary for daily use in most parts of Canada. Most municipalities test their drinking water stringently and the standard for purity is higher than the standards for industrial water used by water bottlers. Tap water is regulated by Health Canada and provincial governments, with water being tested for specific harmful substances constantly, while bottled water falls under the Food and Drugs Act, which doesn’t set limits on specific contaminants but simply says products can’t contain “poisonous or harmful substances” and need to be prepared in sanitary conditions.

Nevertheless, the world is waking up to the potential environmental crisis. Nestlé Waters has reduced the amount of PET plastic in its bottles by 40%, and water filter companies such as Brita tout the fact that a container of filtered water can prevent some 300 plastic bottles from entering the environment.

But this is just scratching the surface. New and innovative technology is now tackling the problem head on, and some real solutions may be on the horizon.

For instance, a startup called Skipping Rocks Lab believes we can just skip plastic bottles entirely. The company has developed a capsule for transporting water called Ooho that is not only biodegradable, it’s edible. The startup was founded by three design students in London. As the technology news website Extreme Tech explains, “They started thinking about the way water is stored and consumed after working on a program to collect and repurpose plastic bottles. They looked to nature to come up with a better way, eventually settling on a membrane structure. Membranes are used throughout nature because they’re efficient—think cells, fruit, and eggs.”

Ooho’s membrane is composed mainly of seaweed, whereby the membranes are a gelatin composed of sodium alginate from seaweed and calcium chloride, and are molded into a pouch. Each pouch of water costs only about two cents to produce, and because the membrane is entirely organic it can be eaten after the contents have been consumed.

Skipping Rocks Lab’s website says Ooho pouches biodegrade in four to six weeks. Although Ooho is good for water, milk, juice and other liquids, its short shelf life, at least at this time, limits its use in grocery. Instead, it’s being marketed for use at special events like concerts and sports.

Water in plastic bottles will undoubtedly still be in use for a while—but if membrane technology continues to evolve, it may eventually replace plastic in grocery stores.

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