When half a century ago designers such as Verner Panton and Luigi Colani revolutionised people’s living rooms with their brightly coloured plastic furniture it crossed nobody’s mind that this wonder material that could be formed into any required shape would one day come to become a symbol of global rubbish and the ecological crisis.
However, there is hope: for years now international materials producers have been working on sustainable alternatives and they are now ready to launch biologically degradable plastics which can be used for a range of applications. The long-term aim is to create those everyday objects which nowadays consist of countless materials from as few components as possible in order to simplify recycling and accelerate the natural degradation process.
Just as with ‘normal’ plastics these bio-plastics also consist of countless chains of molecules, the polymers, which in turn are formed from a large quantity of basic components, the monomers. In contrast to synthetic polymers, which are produced from fossil raw materials, the term ‘biopolymers’ refers to the origin of the basic components for the polymers, which come from renewable resources. Biopolymers are composed of materials derived from living organisms – in other words plants, animals or bacteria. These can be starches from potatoes, wheat or maize, cellulose from vegetable cell walls or proteins such as silk, spider’s webs or hair. The properties of the material are determined by the length and molecular structure of the chains. Depending on the manufacturing process and the formulation of the material they can be regulated and optimised by additives such as natural fibres. The variety of bio-plastics which have been tested is already impressive today.
Creating the material is one thing but finding applications for it is another, because the cost-intensive development of new production materials is only justified by their use in series production. This is where the skills of product designers and manufacturers come in – above all those who are aiming at greater things.
One of these is the Swiss designer Beat Karrer, who together with the biochemist Michael Kangas experiments with new possibilities for processing biopolymers. The low-tech experiments in their Zurich witches’ kitchen produced promising results and these were quickly built on by cooperations with a number of materials producers and a research institute.