Could an Algae Water Bottle Help Solve the Plastic Problem?
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Plastic bottles take an average of 450 years to decompose. What if we could eat them instead? Here’s how the idea of an algae water bottle is changing the conversation about water.
In 2021, the world produced an estimated 390.7 million metric tons of plastic, a full 4% increase compared to the previous year. With people recycling very little plastic, much of it ends up in landfills or the environment, posing a significant hazard to wildlife and human health.
Plastic water bottles have their merits — if they didn’t, nobody would use them. They’re lightweight, cheap, and convenient, lining the shelves of every grocery store and gas station. You won’t go thirsty if you forget to bring your own water bottle on a road trip. But because plastic takes so long to break down, it’s far from an ideal material to use for disposable containers.
A product design student at the Iceland Academy of the Arts has created a potential solution to the issue. Although it’s still in the conceptual stage, Ari Jónsson’s water bottle consists of a powdered red algae byproduct called agar, which combines with water to create a gelatinous substance. Red algae isn’t the slimy, clumpy stuff you find floating in ponds, but actually a type of seaweed.
After heating the agar mixture, manufacturers would decant it into a water-bottle-shaped mold and let it chill in icy water. Next, it would solidify in a refrigerator for a few minutes. Manufacturers would then remove the bottle from the mold and fill it with water. An algae water bottle would retain its shape as long as it had liquid inside, then start to decompose once it was empty.
Potential Downsides of an Algae Water Bottle
Agar is fragile, so algae-based water bottles would require delicate handling to prevent tearing. This quality may pose logistical challenges.
Plastic water bottles start their life at a plastics factory, and then truck drivers ship them to a bottling plant. Once filled and packaged, drivers ship them to stores around the country. Consumers then buy the bottles and transport them even further. Manufacturers would have to take steps to prevent algae water bottles from getting damaged along the way.
Another issue is that even biodegradable garbage, like food or agar-based products, doesn’t break down easily in landfills. Thirty to 40% of the U.S. food supply ends up in the garbage. In the dark, oxygen-starved microcosm that is the bottom of a trash heap, plastic-encased food essentially mummifies, taking years to break down. You can find perfectly intact hot dogs old enough to have grandkids.
The methane this food emits makes landfills one of the worst offenders when it comes to climate change. In 2020, landfills accounted for 14.5% of human-related methane emissions in the United States, the equivalent of 20.3 million cars driven for a year.
Therefore, algae water bottles would break down faster than plastic, but not fast enough in a landfill, where they would contribute to ongoing methane emissions. Composting them would be the most sustainable choice.
There are also several bacteria species that readily feast on agar, although most do not because it contains so few nutrients. Engineers could, theoretically, build agar decomposition tanks containing specialized bacteria to help algae water bottles decompose even faster.
Agar is a common cooking ingredient. However, it’s also a laxative, and it doesn’t exactly taste great. Consumers probably wouldn’t eat their water bottles when finished. Even if they could, there’s no way to properly sanitize an algae water bottle, which might pick up bacteria on its trek from factory to fridge.
The Advantages of an Algae Water Bottle
In addition to the obvious benefits of helping to reduce plastic waste, an agar-based water bottle naturally stays cool in the heat. That’s good for thirsty people and grocery stores, alike, which might be able to save on their energy bills by increasing refrigeration temperatures.
Agar retains its shape at up to 149 degrees Fahrenheit. And, because it’s safe to eat, it’s perfectly fine if the bottle itself starts mixing with the water. The same can’t be said for plastic. Hot plastic water bottles — such as those left in a car or storage facility — leach chemicals into the water, making it potentially unsafe to drink.
Harvesting agar is a much more sustainable process than drilling for oil. Farmers can simply grow seaweed, which doesn’t require pesticides, land, freshwater, or fertilizer to grow. In the process, the seaweed absorbs phosphorus, nitrogen, and carbon, helping to fight climate change.
It also yields other ingredients besides just agar. Seaweed is a staple food in many parts of the world, and it provides vital protein, fatty acids, and vitamins.
Phasing Out Plastic Water Bottles
Although the algae water bottle may never reach the development phase, the concept is intriguing and opens up a wider discussion about plastic use. Why is throwing away a material that takes 450 years to decompose considered acceptable?
In many places, it isn’t. The state of Bihar, India, has banned plastic water bottles in government events and meetings. Toronto, Canada prohibits the sale and distribution of bottled water in its civic centers, parks, and other city facilities. U.S.-based Washington University has also banned plastic, single-use water bottle sales on campus.
Some places take it a step further. Bundadoon, Australia banned bottled water sales entirely, instead providing numerous public drinking fountains and water dispensers so people can fill their bottles. This strategy may be the best solution to the plastic problem. Rather than bottling and selling water, why not simply sell reusable bottles and provide water on tap?
Expanding Water Access
Ultimately, instead of trying to find new ways to create disposable water bottles, it may be time for a cultural shift in thinking. Many countries and individual states have already banned other single-use plastics like grocery bags and straws. Why add single-use agar to the mix?
If we start focusing on sustainability and reusing what we already have, perhaps we’ll realize we don’t need disposable water bottles after all. But, for those times when you truly want a fast, cheap and convenient option, maybe algae can fill the gap.
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About the author
Rachel serves as the Assistant Editor of Environment.co. A true foodie and activist at heart, she loves covering topics ranging from veganism to off grid living.