Algae, art and other matters
Historically, when we talk about plastic, we refer to the stuff clogging our waterways, sitting indefinitely in landfills and harming wildlife.
Today, innovators and forward thinkers are dreaming up ways to support the infrastructure we have created that relies on plastic by creating planet-friendly alternatives.
At Great Wrap, we use food waste and other compostable biopolymers to make our stretch wrap, but there are many different renewable resources at our disposal to create new bio-based plastics.
Someone who has looked outside the box when it comes to creating bioplastics is Jessie French from Other Matter, who takes the polymers from algae, creates beautiful objects from it, and invites us to look at what the future could hold if we embrace new ways of thinking.
We couldn't pass up the opportunity to speak to Jessie to learn more about her studio and bioplastic innovations.
Great Wrap: Hi, Jessie. Please can you explain to us what Other Matter is?
Jessie French: "Other Matter is an experimental design studio born from a curiosity about life after the petrochemical party ends.
Other Matter is engaged in a series of projects to expand the horizon of alternatives to petrochemical plastics, particularly those that are single-use. At the moment, this is focused around algae-based materials.
The thing about everyday materials is that our knowledge and understanding of how they behave is so ingrained that it becomes invisible. Learning how these new materials live, age and behave is key to further application, and something the studio is heavily focussed on."
Great Wrap: It's so exciting that algae can be used to create an alternative to traditional plastic. How would you describe the process you use to make this material?
Jessie French: "Making the material looks something like this: the material is cooked like a soup as a hot liquid, then poured out, cooled and cured. There are various different ways the materials are made and techniques for its application, but this is a general overview of how it works.
The research side of things is a collaborative project. We work closely with experts in conservation and plastics degradation. Since 2021, we've worked closely with conservators Elenor Vallier and Robyn Ho Care of Studios, in conversation with fellow conservator Jessica Waltherm at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum to design research around aging, technical and aesthetic properties. More recently, we have also had plastics degradation expert Julianne Bell involved to look at materials on a molecular scale as they age in order to predict future longevity and factors degrading the material."
Great Wrap: Wow, it sounds like there is a lot that goes into your work. So, what was it that motivated you to start exploring new materials?
Jessie French: "Plastic production has exploded to over 380 million tonnes each year, spawning rampant ocean pollution. One prediction states that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea. This intrusion into daily life underscores our urgent need for alternative solutions. With growing evidence of the harmful effects of plastics on human and environmental health, including their role as carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, it is urgent that we find safer and more sustainable alternatives.
Motivated by the overwhelming problem of plastic pollution and its ruinous effects on the environment, my exploration of new materials began in 2019 as an artistic research project envisioning a future beyond petrochemical-based plastics. Our limited understanding of plastics' long-term behaviour and their relatively recent emergence — a phenomenon dating only to the dawn of the 20th century — spurred my artistic project. This exploration led to the successful development of sustainable materials, the outcomes of which exceeded the realm of artwork. Embracing this breakthrough, Other Matter now assumes the role of custodian, dedicated to sharing access to this material innovation and creating real-world impact through scalable applications.
With plastic pollution taking centre stage as a priority for global organisations like the UN and governments worldwide, including our own here in Australia, the importance of seeking new materials that prioritise human and environmental health cannot be overstated."
Great Wrap: We completely agree. It is essential that we find new ways to make the materials we use every day. How did you land on algae to make bioplastic?
Jessie French: "Algae shares an intrinsic connection with petrochemicals, which are derived from fossilised microalgae, compressed over millions of years. This fascinating link initially piqued my interest. Additionally, I had the chance to delve into the supply chains of the algae I use during a residency in Morocco in early 2020.
While in Morocco, I traced the supply chains back to the ocean, scrutinising the sustainability of creating bioplastic material from the types of red algae I currently use. This investigation involved consultations with marine experts, agricultural scientists, local harvesters, as well as the directors and lab technicians at the processing plant. These interactions granted me the transparency and assurance necessary to confidently pursue this material."
Great Wrap: The connection between algae and petrochemicals is really interesting. Do you think there is a potential for algae-based bioplastics to be made on a large scale?
Jessie French: "Undoubtedly, the immense biodiversity of algae, with over 100,000 known species and possibly millions yet to be classified, opens up vast opportunities for bioplastic production. However, we're merely on the cusp of understanding the potential of these organisms as material resources.
However, this promising outlook shouldn't eclipse the existing issues of overproduction and single-use consumption. The world currently generates about 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste annually, with single-use plastics forming a substantial part of this. We must acknowledge that even the shift to biodegradable materials like algae-based bioplastics won't solve the problem if we continue to overproduce and discard items at our current rates.
A strength of the algae-based material I use is that they can be recycled in a simple, non-industrial closed-loop system. This could mean there is less reliance on 'making' new things all the time and more focus on a circular system of *actual* recycling, which could be done at home.
As we harness the potential of algae-based bioplastics, it's equally crucial to focus on reducing consumption and promoting reuse and recycling. A sustainable future involves not just a shift in materials but also a radical transformation of our consumption culture. We need to weave sustainability into the very fabric of our societal norms, a goal that requires more than just innovative materials — it demands a collective change in mindset."
Great Wrap: We love the symbiosis between art and science. How do you strike such a beautiful balance?
Jessie French: "Kurt Vonnegut hit the nail on the head: 'Science is magic that works.' In tandem with this, art serves as our compass, guiding us through complexities. It's a delicate dance between the practical and the abstract, between the visible and the felt.
However, the lines we've drawn between art and science are largely a recent, Western perspective. In many cultures, these fields of understanding the world were undivided.
This historical intertwining shapes my approach to work at Other Matter. I aim to blur these perceived boundaries. Scientific inquiry provides structure, while my twin artistic practice drives innovation and experimentation."
Great Wrap: We'd love to see more of this intertwining in our culture. What would you like to see in the future when it comes to algae-based plastics?
Jessie French: "I think more about the future of less sustainable materials as the basis to work from. Where can they be replaced? When is it appropriate to use them? Where do we first need to reduce or end their use? How do we go about that?
In my studio, we are heavily invested in research, investigating how to broaden the application of sustainable materials like algae-based plastics. A significant portion of this exploration springs from my artistic practice, where I'm seeking alternatives for exhibition materials, such as paint, vinyl, and produced signage. Yet, these investigations extend beyond the cultural industry, with potential applications in retail, hospitality, and event management.