Can a Bottle Made From Algae End the World’s Plastic Addiction?

The all-natural container is biodegradable.
(Photo: Ragna M. Gudmundsdottir)
Apr 6, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Alex Janin is an editorial intern at TakePart and a senior at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

It started as a homework assignment for a college class, but the biodegradable, algae-based container 32-year-old product design student Ari Jónsson ended up creating has the potential to shake up the plastic water bottle industry.

Jónsson, a student at the Iceland Academy of the Arts, invented an all-natural water bottle that holds its shape when full and decomposes when empty. He debuted his creation in mid-March at the DesignMarch 2016 festival in Reykjavík, Iceland.

Only two materials are needed to create the bottle: agar, a gelatinous substance that comes from red algae, and water. “I just followed the path in what I was researching, trying to find new ways to use materials,” said Jónsson.

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To create the form of the bottle, Jónsson combined the water and agar, heated the mixture, poured it into a mold, and cooled it down quickly. The H2O binds and thickens the agar when it cools, so it keeps the shape of the water bottle, explained Jónsson.

The real magic happens when the bottle is emptied. “It becomes rotten.... It will go bad like other foods,” said Jónsson.

When the bottle is left sitting in open air, it takes about a week for it to shrink down. It can sustainably decompose in soil, but Jónsson has not yet determined how long that process would take. A plastic water bottle, on the other hand, takes more than 1,000 years to biodegrade, and in the U.S. more than 2 million tons of the containers are wasting away in landfills.

(Photo: Ragna M. Gudmundsdottir)

Experts have argued that we’re entering the “Age of Plastic” in which the material is becoming one of the most widely and abundantly deposited substances on Earth. To stop that from continuing, innovators across the globe are trying to find ways to reuse plastic. German firm Ecotec Environmental Solutions, for example, is using bottles to build homes, and Pharrell Williams’ smartphone game is designed to make people consider recycling. Meanwhile, some municipalities, such as San Francisco, have enacted ordinances banning the sale of bottled water within city limits.

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Jónsson’s bottle could take plastic out of the equation altogether—if it could be mass-produced. The design lacks portability (the bottle doesn’t have a cap), and Jónsson needs funding for further testing and to begin manufacturing it. The Iceland Academy of the Arts is helping him look into financial grants and connecting him with experts to help him develop the bottle, said Jónsson.

“Hopefully it will spark some kind of new way of thinking about how we can look for solutions,” he said. “If it helps spark new ideas somewhere else or someone gets inspired to try new things, that’s brilliant.”