Algae researchers rise to the challenge of weeding out plastic waste

Men collecting seaweed

By 2025, the world’s oceans will be home to one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish. The problem is especially acute in Southeast Asia, where valuable marine ecosystems are at risk from both local and international marine plastic debris.

 

But help is at hand in the form of a new, zero-waste green chemistry to produce seaweed-based biocompostable plastics in Indonesia and the Philippines. Called SEAweed-Tech, the project was developed in the Climate Change Cluster (C3) at UTS in collaboration with and Net-Works™.

“What we’re trying to do is get the local communities to group together and use our extraction technique so that they receive more value for their activity"

SEAweed-Tech enables the extraction of gel-based chemicals (phycocolloids) from seaweeds, an essential ingredient in developing a sustainable, biocompostable alternative to petroleum-derived plastic products.

“Existing phycocolloid extraction techniques produce a lot of toxic waste products. What we’re developing is a new approach to extraction that has a smaller footprint in terms of volume of chemicals and that’s 100 per cent reusable or disposable without causing damage to the environment,” says C3 Director Professor Peter Ralph.

The project is set to revolutionise the health of coastal and marine environments in Indonesia and the Philippines, where seaweed farming is big business – it comprises 35 per cent of fisheries production in the Philippines, and combined, these two countries farm more than 85 per cent of the world’s red seaweeds for carrageenan and agar-based food markets.

As part of a partnership between C3 and Net-Works™ at the Zoological Society of London, SEAweed-Tech will form the basis of a new seaweed market in the region that will provide marginalised coastal communities with a scaleable, sustainable income stream derived from the growing global bioplastics industry.

“Lots of communities in Southeast Asia grow seaweed, but the markets into which they sell don’t provide much profit to the village, largely because they’re selling raw product,” Professor Ralph says.

“What we’re trying to do is get the local communities to group together and use our extraction technique so that they receive more value for their activity – they’ll be selling the partly processed material for plastic instead of just selling dried algae.”

The research project further aims to reduce the amount of petroleum-based plastic that enters marine environments by providing an alternative for regional plastic manufacturers to produce seaweed-based products from local seaweed sources. Over the next two years, the research team estimates that SEAweed-Tech will contribute to 100,000 people benefitting from less petro-plastic in their coastal areas – a local solution for a local problem.

Change that matters – here’s how it works

The project will be rolled out in three stages:

  • Stage 1 (0–6 months): C3 researchers will develop the green chemistry phycocolloid extraction process in their Sydney-based labs.
  • Stage 2 (6–12 months): The SEAweed-Tech team will work with 1–2 communities in the Philippines to scale up the technology for local use.
  • Stage 3 (12–24 months): The project will be implemented across a network of communities in the Philippines, and a local cooperative will be created to sell the eco-plastic components into local supply chains.

Become a SEAweed-Tech partner

C3 is recognised as an international leader in algae biotechnology research, making the UTS team uniquely placed to deliver on SEAweed-Tech’s vision. The work is just one component of a broader research program that’s focused on delivering a cleaner, greener future.

The research team is currently looking for project partners – individuals and organisations who share their passion for research that shapes communities and the environment.

Donations of all sizes can have a significant impact on the success of this initiative.