After years of confinement in a circuit considered experimental and niche, biomaterials have officially entered the mainstream.
Design and fashion compete for the privilege of producing with plastics derived from potato skins or mycelia skins. Apparently there is nothing better than putting a piece of furniture capable of decomposition at home and practically edible on the feet of sneakers.
But, fashion aside, what are biomaterials really and when does it make sense to use them?
Does biomaterial mean biodegradable?
Broadly speaking, the definition 'biomaterial' belongs to the world of chemistry and describes a matter that interacts positively in an organic environment.
By extension, the term 'biomaterial' is used for any substance which, in contact with a natural environment or an organic system, does not pollute and does not create imbalances. A material that can dissolve and become part of nature again.
This obviously can only happen when mold, fungi, water and sunlight can activate the decomposition process that characterizes any organic matter. Biomaterial and biodegradable material are therefore two different things.
The key word is regeneration and the underlying process is vaguely repulsive.
Organic like an orange peel
"There is great attention to biomaterials right now", explains Marilù Osculati of Krill Design, a Milanese startup that invented Rekrill, a bio-based material made with food scraps (currently orange peels and coffee, but practically any leftover from the chain can be used food).
"The best quality of biobased materials is that they do not need to be processed in landfills to re-enter the natural cycle. They decompose spontaneously when put in the right conditions, they are compostable. There is no better argument. of perishability in favor of ecological choices".
Orienting yourself in the world of sustainability with a simple parameter such as the total biodegradation of a product is simpler and more immediate than juggling figures and percentages.
But the problem cannot be avoided: is there a sensible reason from the point of view of the carbon footprint to use organic materials?
The good reasons for compostable objects
"A kilo of biomaterial is equivalent to a kilo of Co2. The rest is done by the circular economy project which in principle should be the basis of any operation in favor of sustainability and ecological transition", explains Osculati.
Many startups born to carry out research and production of bio-based materials give themselves rules within which to develop their business, often in the form of posters and policies aimed at coherent growth.
"In the near future of Krill Design there is the production dislocation: 3D printing is easily relocated and it is convenient to geographically disseminate the machines rather than move the products.
Development within a framework of sustainability goes towards increasingly rational choices, towards research on new materials and the scalability of the project. "In other words: impacting means being able to produce any new material in large quantities and use it massively.
A bookcase made of orange peels
It is feasible? Yes, but it costs more and is not always cost effective at the moment.
For a large serial industry it is easier to choose to continue with traditional materials (from hydrocarbon byproducts, for reuse or, where possible, from corn) and bet on other forms of restitution to the carbon balance. And there is always a perceptual bias to overcome: biomaterials for a library? Does this make sense?
"The customer may be afraid that the purchased item will start, at some point, to to become corrupted. There are many biodegradable materials. however, mechanical and strength properties are different depending on the composition and chemical structure.
Some are certainly suitable for the development of large products such as furniture, because they only decompose if placed in certain conditions. We are starting to develop a big collection ".
Nature knows better: nature knows how
The British startup Notpla produces disposable food containers. One of their products, named Ooho!, is also edible.
Nopla has put online a video with the degradation and dissolution process in the soil. Which is the first step of reuse in another area: the Nopla manifesto (and also that of Krill Design) says that 'nature knows better'!
The idea of decomposition is difficult, in a certain sense. For a very simple reason: it involves the idea of the end and of transience.
Sensible objects in compostable materials
In fact, other projects involving a sensible use of compostable materials have semantic analogies, for example, such as the Living Cocoon coffins of mycelia designed by Bob Hendrikx, who also founded a brand.
Or they find a use linked to the transience of function, such as the Woolybubs baby slippers.
But as the designer and founder of Mogu Fabrizio Montalti says here: "From my point of view it contains a very powerful idea: that of rebirth and regeneration. In nature, and that's where you have to look if you want to learn something new , nothing disappears, it just changes shape.
Something causes matter to transit from one state to another. Studying the natural world, I soon realized the key role of mushrooms as agents of this regeneration in the ecosystem".