If I told you I knew someone who was developing a bio-based product or material to replace traditional plastics, chances are you might envision a chemist, possibly male, and possibly over 50 years old. You wouldn’t necessarily think of an art school graduate, relatively young and female.
And yet, this new cohort of sustainable materials designers are disrupting the industry. They identify themselves as designers rather than scientists, and in a world badly in need of sustainable materials solutions, they are starting to take the industry by storm with biobased materials and designs.
Materials development has for decades been driven by large chemical manufacturers, as much of this field has been heavily dependent on petroleum-based chemicals. However, there is a rising interest among major brands (including the likes of Lego, and Danone, among others) to replace petroleum-based plastics with bioplastics as a means of lowering the environmental footprint of products and packaging.
Bioplastics are generally much safer to produce, which means they can often be made outside of the chemistry lab. And they can also be made from readily-available and locally-sourced materials. The accessibility of biobased chemistry has attracted an emerging cohort of designers, makers, and entrepreneurs–many of them are female and graduates of design school. They are also entrepreneurial and motivated by environmental sustainability. Here are just a few examples:
Chelsea Briganti is a graduate of the Parsons School of Design in New York City. She is also cofounder of LOLIWARE, an edible plastics company that is making bioplastic straws out of seaweed. Briganti and her co-founder appeared on Shark Tank in 2015 and obtained venture funding through the show. Her company has since grown in size, adding a technical team to scale production of their edible products. LOLIWARE’s success was fueled in part by the creative co-founder’s personalities, high design sensibilities, and a fun haute couture marketing approach to its edible bioplastic products. As the company has grown and obtained funding, its attentions have turned to supplying major brands.
Hundreds of miles away in America’s heartland, Jessica Gorse graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She subsequently founded Fertile Design, a design lab that creates bioplastics for artists. Gorse noted that many artist supplies are made from plastics and are difficult to dispose of properly. This includes acrylic paint, as well as resins and foams for mold- and sculpture making. “This is ironic,” noted Gorse, “because many artists are strong supporters of sustainability.” Inspired by this experience, Gorse is developing her own by line of bioplastic sculpture mold for artists. She has also been teaching artists how to make bioplastics for their projects. By sharing her work in this way, Gorse has built a grass-roots community around her line of bioplastics.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, Anastasia Pistofidou, an architect by training, is the director of the FabTextiles research lab in Fab Lab Barcelona, where she runs classes on sustainable materials design. Her classes cover digital and 3D printing techniques, bioplastic recipes and biotextiles recipes (such as how to make kombucha-based and mushroom-based leathers), and natural dyeing processes utilizing specific bacteria. She sees the role of her lab as democratizing access to material design technologies. The vast majority of FabTextiles’ students are women. When I asked Pistofidou to speculate about this trend, she stated that she believed it may be due “to [women’s] entrepreneurial nature as well as [their] sensibility towards the future of our world.”
Despite the emergence of these bioplastic entrepreneurs, lack of familiarity with the process of making bioplastics is still a common obstacle, according to Alysia Garmulewicz, Associate Professor at the University of Santiago, Chile. Garmulewicz is Co-Founder of Materiom, an open platform for bioplastics recipes available online to all makers and designers. With recent support from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the platform identifies readily-available and locally-sourced materials for its recipes to encourage grassroots entrepreneurship and local fabrication.
The increasing availability of bioplastics recipes and educational resources is continuing to draw entrepreneurial and sustainably-minded women to this growing and important industry. The rising demand for bioplastics has created unique opportunities for grassroots materials innovation, and female designers are becoming some of the market leaders in the development of sustainable bioplastics.
The first generation of these women have truly been mavericks, experimenting with raw materials, developing recipes, and bringing bioplastic consumer product applications to the general public. I look forward to seeing the impact that this cohort of materials designers will have on the next generation of materials scientists and chemists.
Joanna Malaczynski is the Founder of DESi Potential, a consulting firm that helps emerging, innovative, and sustainability-oriented companies gain market traction. She is a design thinker with a background in software entrepreneurship, interaction design, customer discovery and analytical research techniques.