Just before the pandemic hit last year, Melbourne creative Jessie French returned from a life changing artist residency in Morocco. Most of the world’s agar (derived from red algae) comes from this North African country, and she spent her time there developing seaweed-based bioplastic recipes, and doing deep research into seaweed supply chains.
On her return to Australia, Jessie launched Other Matter – a multifaceted studio that explores the creation of seaweed-based bioplastics – and the first design studio in the world to offer custom-made, algae-based bioplastic designs, as well as consultation services. It’s all part of Jessie’s vision for a ‘post-petrochemical’ world: an economic model that substitutes plastic products made from mined petroleum with biodegradable ‘plastic’ made from biological substances.
Other Matter opened in Melbourne just in time for Melbourne Design Week a few weeks ago. Alongside ceramicists Claire Lehmann and Jia Jia Chen of Fluff Corp., the space acts as an HQ for Jessie’s seaweed-based practice, where she can make her bioplastics and consult on projects with other practitioners who are interested in using the material. She and the Fluff Corp. girls are even trialling covering ceramic bodies with an algae ‘glaze’!
Curious about how all of this works? Let Jessie explain her fascinating process in her own words.
Okay, so what are algae-based bioplastics and how do you use them in your practice?
First thing’s first: plastic. We tend to associate this word with petrochemical plastic, but this association began following the industrial revolution and the proliferation of fossil fuels – which are in fact made of ancient algae that has been compressed under the earth for millions of years. Plastic, in material terms, actually refers to a material that is malleable or pliable. With this context in mind, it usually refers to a synthetic material. Bioplastics are those made from organic materials. Algae-based bioplastics are those made specifically with algae as the main ingredient, to make a material that is malleable, shapeable or pliable.
However, things get confusing where the term ‘bioplastic’ is used because there is no legislation or standards in place specifying what can and can’t be called a bioplastic. Many bioplastics are made with only some organic materials. Many aren’t biodegradable. Many aren’t recyclable. Many aren’t compostable in anywhere but a commercial composting facility which most people don’t have ready access to.
The algae-based bioplastics I make are safe enough to eat (though they aren’t designed for their taste at the moment!) and they are made from completely organic materials. Unlike commonly used materials, the bioplastic materials I have developed can be recycled in a home kitchen in about an hour. The same ingredients can be made and re-made into different objects infinitely. If not recycled into new items, after use, they can be composted in a few months in a home system. This is vitally different to many materials described as bioplastics that require transport to and processing in a commercial facility.
When disposed, critters including microbes living in soil (as well as waterways, should they end up there) can consume them, and they act as fertiliser for plants as they break down. Because they are completely biodegradable in good time, they will never become caught around or inside the body of a living being that comes across them in the environment.
Can you tell us about your new studio space, and what will happen here?
The space is managed by Creative Spaces, a City of Melbourne program, and I’m interested in making a contribution to the city by inviting people in and sharing ideas and knowledge.
Installed in the space are my growing bioreactors, cultivating a variety of microalgae cultures. They are 4-5 times more effective than mature trees at converting carbon to oxygen, and are extremely nutritious to eat. I use them in the studio as pigment. I’d like to share this idea of growing microalgae with people because it can be done anywhere there is access to light – there’s enormous potential to green our cities by making use of small or vertical spaces to grow these algae.
I’m also going to develop workshops to teach people how to make their own bioplastic and in collaboration with Fluff Corp., workshops where people can come to glaze their own ceramics with bioplastic.
Talk us through the process of actually making your bioplastic pieces. What are the steps and techniques involved?
The process of making my pieces, particularly the moulded vessels, is difficult. In simple terms, I pour heated bioplastic mix into moulds as a liquid, cure it, remove it from the mould then dry it out.
This description is like explaining that to fly a plane is to use motors to fly a specially-designed vehicle through the air and land onto a runway at the other end. It doesn’t capture it.
Developing a simpler recipe and techniques that I can teach others is something I am working on. It is a challenging process. I am completely self-taught, and I’ve learned what I know about using these materials from trial and error. It’s something I’m working on to make these skills teachable. Watch this space.
How did you arrive at the distinct look, shape and feel of your bioplastic pieces?
Controlling the material is a challenge, as it is completely handmade and always different.
The colours are created with microalgae. I use microalgae commonly known as spirulina (which I grow in my studio) for the dark tones and an algal carotene extracted from the algae that makes pink lakes to achieve the orange and yellow tones. It is grown in SA and WA in open-air ocean lagoons by BASF, who supply it to me. Being able to have contact with the suppliers I use is important to me so that I can ensure the sustainability practices involved. The patterns are created as I pour, and I have learned how to do them through an iterative process.
Can you tell me about your recent project for Melbourne Design Week?
A Sea at the Table showcased the potential for algae as sustainable material through a collection of algae bioplastic tableware. The works shown were outcomes of deep research into materials and processes. They investigate the potential of this medium for designing for a post-petrochemical world through creative solutions that do not harm our planet.
I presented a series of bespoke vessels made using an algal polymer and algal pigments. The objects encompass of range of colours, transparencies and capacities and all pieces are organic, compostable at home, and able to be remade in a generative closed-loop system.
What is your hope for the future of sustainable design in tackling environmental issues? (Big question we know!)
Taking things slowly, from the bottom-up and doing it with care. People often ask me about scaling up to a level that is able to produce packaging or products on a commercial scale. The fact is that this is not possible while there is no financial implication for the impact that petrochemical plastics have on our environment, because petrochemicals are so cheap.
We need things to change on a big scale, but not necessarily by big, centralised groups and organisations. Big businesses are bound to legal obligations to shareholders to act in ways that are most likely to make profits each quarter. The political and economic systems in place do not accommodate change like this yet, and to try would not be viable.
I hope that change can be more considered and collective. My work is an invitation to start on a small-scale, to impact change directly in the face of top-down delay.