Young inventor creates plastic alternative from fish waste

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Lucy Hughes with MarinaTex (Picture credit: Stuart Robinson/University of Sussex)

UNIVERSITY of Sussex student Lucy Hughes tackles the problem of both single-use plastics and inefficient waste streams with her alternative to plastic made from fish waste.

Developed as her final year project for Product Design course, the invention has earned the 24-year old this year’s international James Dyson Award.

The bio-plastic, called MarinaTex, is made of organic fish waste ordinarily destined for landfill or incineration and locally sourced red algae.

“Plastic is an amazing material, and as a result, we have become too reliant on it as designers and engineers. It makes no sense to me that we’re using plastic, an incredibly durable material, for products that have a life-cycle of less than a day”, Lucy said.

“For me, MarinaTex represents a commitment to material innovation and selection by incorporating sustainable, local and circular values into design.”

It is a translucent and flexible sheet material, making it ideal for applications in single-use packaging.

While it may look and feel like plastic, MarinaTex uses a unique formula of red algae to bind the proteins extracted from fish waste.

The strong overlapping bonds give the material strength and flexibility.

Despite this the material is relatively resource-light, requiring little energy and temperatures under 100 degrees to produce.

It biodegrades after four to six weeks, is suitable for home composting and does not leach toxins, removing the need for its own national waste management infrastructure.

As MarinaTex uses byproducts from the fishing industry, it helps to close the loop of an existing waste stream for a more circular product lifespan.

According to Lucy, one Atlantic cod could generate as much organic waste as is needed for making 1,400 bags of MarinaTex.

Unwanted off-cuts from the fish processing industry creates a huge waste stream.

These off-cuts compromise of offal, blood, crustacean and shellfish exoskeletons and fish skins and scales – the bits that end up in landfill rather than on our plates.

Through extensive research, Lucy found that fish skins and scales were the most promising materials to form the basis of a bio-plastic as they contain strong and flexible protein structures.

In order to allow these proteins to attach to one another to create a brand new material, Lucy set about finding an organic binder.

Keen to keep the solution local in order to reduce transportation, she looked to the coastline on her doorstep, experimenting with different organic marine binders but finally settling on agar.

It took over 100 different experiments to refine the material and process, most of which she did on the kitchen stove in her student accommodation. She finally created a consistent and plastic-like material that was both biodegradable and translucent.

This year marked the 15th year of the James Dyson Award, which is open to student inventors with the ability and ambition to solve the problems of tomorrow.

This year, the award has also seen its highest number of female entrants in the Award’s history across all 27 participating nations.

Sir James Dyson commented on this year’s awards, saying: “Young engineers have the passion, awareness and intelligence to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. The James Dyson Award received some thought-provoking ideas this year – and more female entrants than ever – making the judging very difficult.

“Ultimately, we decided to pick the idea the world could least do without. MarinaTex elegantly solves two problems: the ubiquity of single-use plastic and fish waste. Further research and development will ensure that MarinaTex evolves further, and I hope it becomes part of a global answer to the abundance of single use plastic waste.”

As international winner of the Award, Lucy will receive £30,000 while the University of Sussex receives £5,000.

Lucy added: “I’m so delighted that MarinaTex has been recognised by the James Dyson Award. The invention is still in its infancy and I never thought it would make it to this stage, so it’s really encouraging to have the potential of the material acknowledged by such a prestigious award.”

Now Lucy aims to commercialise her invention sustainably, using her award money for further research into how MarinaTex can become a global answer to the abundance of plastic waste while still harnessing local solutions.

“I’m excited to now have the chance to undertake further research and development to explore all of the possible uses of MarinaTex, taking into account form, function and its footprint.”