Sustainable plastics: A new origin story

Plastic sourced from food waste, trash, and even algae remove harmful materials from the environment today and reduces pollution for the future.

By Rose de Fremery — April 6, 2023

Think about the contents of your fridge or pantry: the yogurt cups, food containers, and plastic bags. Much of the single-use plastic found in these everyday items was essentially designed for waste, adding to the 400 million metric tons of plastic waste produced globally each year — only about 10% of which is recycled. Thanks to recent scientific advancements, however, our plastics future could look quite different from our plastics present. Newer, more sustainable plastics created from sources such as food waste, fishing nets, and even algae could eventually replace today’s disposable plastics, delivering the same high standard of performance without generating harmful pollution for generations to come.

Although consumers are increasingly factoring sustainability into their purchasing decisions, and 84% say they are specifically concerned about plastic waste, plastic production continues to rise. According to a report from the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, plastics use has increased 20-fold in the past half-century, and it is expected to double in the next 20 years. 

Timothy Long, director of the Biodesign Center for Sustainable Macromolecular Materials (SM3) and Manufacturing at Arizona State University, believes we are at an inflection point that requires rethinking every aspect of our relationship with plastic, including not only how we dispose of it, but how we produce it — around 98% of single-use plastic is produced from fossil fuel. “In many respects, we’ve been using the same plastics that we invented in 1950,” he says. “Why are we not developing next-generation materials that are designed for end of life, so we can tackle the challenges of 2023?”


Read more: How to recycle almost any household electronic device


Fortunately, innovators around the world are working to do just that, removing waste and harmful materials from the environment and using them to produce new plastic that won’t become a pollutant itself.

“We’re at a perfect time from the consumer expectation, from the necessity of Earth health, and from a fundamental science perspective to really begin to tackle these grand challenges,” says Long. “I think we have to get to the point in time where we view garbage as a resource.”

Food waste cultivates a key ingredient for new plastic

The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that in the US alone, food waste — the most common material sent to and incinerated in landfills — is associated with 170 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Researchers like Nathalie Gontard, research director at the Agropolymer Engineering and Emerging Technologies Unit at INRAE Montpellier in France, are looking for ways to derive value from food waste, creating plastic that’s durable enough for consumer goods and biodegradable. 

“I think we have to get to the point in time where we view garbage as a resource.”

—Timothy Long, director of the Biodesign Center for Sustainable Macromolecular Materials and Manufacturing, Arizona State University

Leftover banana peels, carrot slices, and rice that might normally end up in a landfill can now be used to create compostable plastics found in T-shirts and sunglasses. Gontard’s laboratory is developing polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) similar to those produced by microorganisms found in food waste. These PHAs perform like traditional plastics but are also biodegradable. Canadian climate biotech company Genecis — one of eight finalists for last year’s HP-sponsored TOM FORD Plastic Innovation Prize — is pursuing a similar strategy, engineering bioplastics such as PHAs using bacteria from food waste. The plastic that results can be used in everything from single-use food packaging to automotive parts.

Gontard notes that when traditional plastic is repurposed into another form, it still continues degrading into micro and nano particles, slowly but steadily accumulating in the environment. 

Toxic algae blooms into new products and packaging

At first glance, neon-hued algae blooms found in the ocean signal that something has gone very wrong. Created when human-made nutrients are released into waterways, harmful algal blooms (HABs) can rapidly grow, depleting oxygen, reducing water quality, blocking out light, and secreting toxins that hurt the surrounding ecosystem. This process, known as eutrophication, can also obstruct fishing and harm tourism.

Left: Coastal view in Dominican Republic of shore covered with brown seaweed. Right: Closeup of person holding handfuls of brown seaweed.

Origin by ocean

Sargassum, a brown algae or seaweed, is among the ocean-sourced raw materials Origin by Ocean uses to produce bio-based chemicals for use in plastic, cosmetics, and more.

Startups like Origin by Ocean are taking a fresh look at blue-green algae as well as seaweeds including sargassum, bladderwrack, and kelp — using them as raw material to create bio-based chemicals for use in industrial bioplastics and other products. Through its own proprietary process, Origin by Ocean isolates sodium alginate, a chemical found in algae, for use in an alternative to plastic packaging. The fibers and other biomass left over after the chemical extraction is also used in bioplastics.

Cooking oil blends into your new computer

Actual food waste is also being transformed into plastic and incorporated into new products, including some of HP’s newest PCs. This year HP débuted its new HP 14 inch Laptop PC - Eco Edition and HP 24-inch and 27-inch All-in-One PCs, showcasing a host of new features for hybrid workers in hardware sourced, in part, from bio-circular content such as used cooking oil and coffee grounds to create a speckled finish.

The alternative materials HP taps to produce new sources of plastic for PCs — whether from cooking oil, ocean-bound plastic, or recycled printer cartridges — need to solve real problems the world is facing, says Ajay Gupta, director of sustainability for HP’s Personal Systems business. 

While the amount of plastic, percentage-wise, in each device may be modest, the company has the benefit of scale. “We ship so many products that when we start using something like cooking oil, the industry has to react by building a supply chain and a value chain,” he explains. “It’s a virtuous cycle that creates a market for waste material.”

Ghost gear goes from ocean to automobiles

More than 100 million pounds of plastic from industrial fishing — known as “ghost gear” — stays in the ocean each year, clogging harbors while threatening marine wildlife and fishing businesses alike. Fishing nets, in particular, are a pernicious form of ocean pollution, since they quickly become stretched out or damaged from each catch and are typically only used once. Discarded nets, lines, and ropes now make up about 46% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, according to World Wildlife Fund

Danish cleantech company Plastix collects lost or abandoned fishing nets, trawls, and ropes from the ocean and repurposes them into pellets that can be used to create new plastic materials, including parts for BMW’s forthcoming series of electric vehicles.

Left: Empty fishing nets, rope, and Styrofoam buouys on a concrete dock. Right: Hands holding plastic pellets.

Stocksy/Getty Images

Discarded nylon fishing nets can be recycled into uniform plastic pellets. HP is experimenting with recycling Styrofoam buoys as a source material for keyboards.

Gupta says HP is experimenting with recycling fishing nets and the styrofoam buoys that keep the nets afloat. The nets could potentially be used in place of virgin nylon to make the spring-like structures underneath each key on a keyboard, while the styrofoam could be used to remake the keys themselves. 

“Fishing nets are a near-perfect solution for those nylon applications,” Gupta explains.  

Industrial waste lives on in new products

Advances in manufacturing such as 3D printing are also creating new opportunities for creative and sustainable plastic sourcing. SmileDirectClub, for example, uses HP Multi Jet Fusion 3D printers to create molds for its custom teeth aligners — millions every year. Since each set of aligners is personalized for an individual, the molds that shape them can’t be reused. Instead of discarding them, Smile Direct sends them back to HP. The used molds are chopped into pellets that become the source material for new plastics primarily used in the automotive industry, including fuel-line clips in Ford Super-Duty F-250 trucks.

Alternative materials for making plastic is still a wide-open field, HP’s Gupta says. But it’s worth pursuing for the larger impact it could have in the future.

“It’s our commitment to responsibility and action that will make a difference over the long term.”  


These 22 companies make it easy to recycle everything from contact lenses to coffee pods.