Picture this: in a midday munchies moment, you open the refrigerator to find last night’s leftovers in a bowl covered with plastic wrap. After taking the bowl out of the fridge, you remove the plastic wrap. Instead of throwing the plastic wrap away in the garbage, you turn on the faucet and run the plastic wrap under water until the wrap dissolves and washes harmlessly down the drain.
Such a scenario is closer to reality than you might think. AlgoteK, a start-up company founded by three recent University of Oregon alumni is developing a 100 percent biodegradable plastic product that can dissolve in water in under a minute.
According to company CEO and co-founder David Crinnion, their brown algae-based plastic is so environmentally safe that it is edible. To close pitch meetings, Crinnion will even take a bite out of the material to prove his point.
“It won’t hurt anything,” Crinnion said. “A tree could absorb it, a dog could eat it, a baby could eat it.”
AlgoteK’s material addresses a key problem with traditional plastic: rate of biodegradation. Traditional, fossil fuel-based plastic takes centuries to fully break apart into its primary molecular pieces. This has caused serious damage to ocean habitats, from fish ingesting microplastic particles to sea turtles becoming entangled in plastic netting. Because AlgoteK’s plastic is constructed from water soluble, brown algae polymers, their material can degrade rapidly.
According to Justin Lebuhn, chief sustainability officer and co-founder of AlgoteK, their material will reduce the need for fossil fuel-based plastics in the first place because their plastic is created using brown algae. Brown algae also removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which Lebuhn said would help counteract the effects of climate change.
“If the consumer cares about carbon emissions, their carbon footprint, fossil fuel consumption,” Lebuhn said, “the growth of our product is going to help reduce those impacts.”
The possible applications for AlgoteK’s material are vast, according to the company’s three members. Crinnion, Lebuhn and Tanner Stickling, design executive officer and co-founder, suggested their product could be used for anything from tampon applicators to packaging material. But because the company has not decided on a specific application yet, Crinnion said that marketing their plastic can be difficult.
“We’re at stage one,” Crinnion said. “[Investors] want us to be at stage five, but we need $75,000 just to get to stage three.”
AlgoteK is not the first to invent algae-based plastic either. Two Dutch product designers recently developed an algae-based plastic that can be used in 3D printers. Skipping Rocks Lab produces “water orbs” that are brown algae-based. But the members of AlgoteK said no one has been able to truly capitalize on the invention.
“You have to make [the investors] believe in it as much as you do,” Stickling said.
The three members of AlgoteK first met each other September 2017 at the Sustainable Invention Immersion Week, an event put on by the UO’s product design, chemistry, journalism and business departments. After taking second place in the InventOR competition in June 2018, the group entered into talks with a bioplastic manufacturer in Albany, Oregon about a contract to mass produce AlgoteK material. Crinnion said he wants the company to roll out a product line around the start of 2019.
“We’re trying to focus on what we know,” Crinnion said. “Assuming we get more money and time, then we’ll start researching on a different compound.”
Crinnion said the company also secured laboratory space at Portland State University’s Business Accelerator, and will move their base of operations from the Eugene Regional Accelerator and Business Network to Portland in the coming weeks.
Besides research and development of their plastic, Stickling said they need to market the company effectively in order for customers to trust their product over traditional plastic.
“If come out with a sustainable tampon or a sustainable tupperware cover,” she said, “it’s going to be a lot of branding and reaching out to customers and following through with surveys and seeing what their reactions are.”
In the future, Lebuhn said he hopes AlgoteK can expand beyond plastic and utilize algae in other fields, like fuel and livestock feed. But for now, the company is focused on getting their plastic mass produced.
“Within ten years, ridding plastics in general or single-use plastics would be a dream,” Lebuhn said.”
AlgoteK can be reached at [email protected].
Follow Franklin Lewis on Twitter @flewis_1
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled David Crinnion’s last name. The article has been changed to reflect the proper spelling.