Here’s a riddle: What looks like plastic, acts like plastic, and is found in fish? If your answer was plastic, a few years ago you’d be right. Now, thanks to Lucy Hughes and her team, there is a new answer, MarinaTex.
A biodegradable material made from agar, red algae, and fish processing waste, MarinaTex has the potential to revolutionize the way single-use plastics are conceptualized and marketed. Instead of sourcing materials from synthetic polymers and land-based resources, Hughes began at the end. Citing a kinship with the sea, the project began as an attempt to rethink the linear waste stream by getting plastics out of the ocean with an emphasis on biodegradable solutions. Given that, Hughes started her search for sources in the waste streams that emerge from the ocean, turning to skin and scales as the waste from seafood and fish processing as the building blocks for what became MarinaTex. Whipping up prototypes in the kitchen of her apartment while attending the University of Sussex, MarinaTex began to take shape when she added agar and red algae as a bonding agent, ensuring that the material could take form as a plastic but avoid widespread environmental harm. Even though MarinaTex is not technically a plastic as the process of production is vastly different from most polymers on the shelves, it behaves similarly enough that consumers will not be put off by the distinction.
Consumers have become used to planet-killing products and, as a result, raise their hackles when encountering green solutions that differ in performance from what they’re used to. Those who are familiar know the bitter alienation of paper straws and their frustrating droopiness. While conservation is often about compromise, the capitalist progression that wealthy countries have become accustomed to charts a path of least resistance. MarinaTex places convenience high on its list of priorities, making the product functionally the same as conventional plastics. The disposal process for MarinaTex is easier to manage than our current habits of plastic disposal. Decomposing in four to six weeks in a home compostable environment, consumers can sleep easy knowing that their MarinaTex sandwich wrapper is not in the belly of a beluga whale. MarinaTex excels at extending the back end of the conservation equation, less aesthetic compromise, more guiltless circular experience.
MarinaTex’s ultimate goal is to be a product that contributes to and creates its own circular economy. Going from a natural source or waste stream to a low-impact production process, to product, then back into the waste stream or natural source, circular economies are a model that guards against the accumulation of future problems. They stand in direct contrast to linear production and waste streams, that take a resource, change it at great environmental cost and pass it along to the consumer, who then disposes of it in such a way that poisons the environment.
Written down and explained in this leading manner intentionally paints the current system as absurd, but what is important to note is that this method of production and disposal operates from the perspective of the consumer who lives unaware or uncaring to these processes. What the eye cannot see, the heart does not grieve. Lucy Hughes, growing up by the sea and enamored with its beauty from an early age, saw shorelines speckled with trash and knew that somewhere there was a disconnect. Wondering why we take things from the land to pitch into the sea, Hughes saw an opportunity to make a difference, and she has.
At its current stage, MarinaTex is still undergoing testing and has time to go before initiating a full-scale launch of the various iterations of the product. But, after winning the James Dyson award in 2019, there is continued faith in its widespread applications. While the range of uses for this product are unknown, it’s safe to say that MarinaTex has a bright future with a clear message: life without plastic is fantastic.