Europe produced 57 million tonnes of plastics in 2010, with the majority being used in packaging. The production of plastics puts a strain on our already depleting fossil fuel resources and also impacts on the environment when plastics cannot biodegrade or be recycled.
SEABIOPLAS, a project coordinated by Dr Julie Maguire in the Daithi O’Murchu Marine Research Station on Sheep’s Head Peninsula, aims to introduce sustainably cultivated seaweeds for the production of biodegradable bioplastics.
PolyLactic Acid (PLA) produced using seaweed is a sustainable alternative to using petro-chemicals, being compostable and biodegradable. Currently, the production of non-petrochemical PLA is based on the use of important food sources for humans and animals (for example corn, wheat, sugar beets and sugar cane) and other natural resources. With the production of bioplastics expected to rise, the use of these resources will also increase and compete with food and energy production. This in turn will raise prices for biomass (plant matter used as fuel) and cause further damage to the environment.
By researching a system to sustainably grow seaweed, which is then processed to produce the lactic acid used in making PLA, SEABIOPLAS is developing a greener alternative to petrochemically-produced plastics.
Sustainably grown seaweed could become big business for Ireland. In 2010 world seaweed production was 19.9 million tonnes. Of this, Europe was only responsible for 0.4 per cent. Markets for seaweed include food, fertilisers, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and animal feed. Controlled cultivation of seaweeds allows for high traceability, management of waste, high quality and sustainability — all qualities for which Ireland has already earned an excellent reputation.
Sustainability is further increased when cultivation of seaweed is carried out in Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture (IMTA) systems. IMTA systems work by incorporating the waste products produced by one species into the diet of another species. Aquaculture industries such as fish farms produce phosphorus and nitrogen that are lost to the surrounding ecosystem. Seaweed is able to utilise this nitrogen and phosphorus and produce new biomass through photosynthesis, thus removing these excess nutrients from the surrounding area.
IMTA cultivated seaweed also has several other advantages over the raw materials currently used in biomass-based plastics, including a reduction of CO2 emissions, higher productivity, no risk of potential deforestation, no freshwater consumption and no fertilisers or pesticides used.
The benefits of using seaweed in this way also carry through to several other industries. After the sustainably grown seaweed has been processed for PLA, residues left can be used in a number of ways. The capacity of both the cattle sector and fish aquaculture sector to absorb seaweed by-products as new ingredients in feed is huge. The by-products could also be used to manufacture supplements and additives, most of which currently come from South East Asia.
Waste represents enormous losses of resources; however from beginning to end SEABIOPLAS is setting the environmental example of how Ireland could use its natural resources to benefit all.
For more information see www.seabioplas.eu.