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This biodegradable bioplastic sucks carbon from the air

What if more materials not only reduced their own environmental impact, but also actively tried to go farther?

This biodegradable bioplastic sucks carbon from the air
[Photo: courtesy Lexus Design Awards]

Hanging from a wall, a new design called BioScales looks like an abstract sculpture. But it’s also designed to capture CO2 and pollution from the air and later to be composted, returning carbon to the soil.

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The design, a finalist for the 2020 Lexus Design Award, was developed by the Los Angeles-based firm Sutherlin Santo. “Living downtown, dealing with the air quality here and dealing with the fallout from the wildfires, we found ourselves bringing equipment into our apartment to clean the air,” says partner Paul Sutherlin Santo. “We conceptually considered what could we do that didn’t amount to introducing new tech but used existing surface area.”

[Photo: courtesy Lexus Design Awards]

It’s part of a larger project the studio is working on called Biocraft, which aims to replace petroleum-based plastic with biopolymers that have additional functions, like the carbon sequestration used by the scales. When he was an architecture student, partner Garrett Sutherlin Santo kept thinking about the scale of plastic waste generated by making architectural models. As his studio, the designers started experimenting with new biodegradable polymer gels that could be used for 3D printing and then composted. (Unlike many compostable plastics, the material can be composted in a backyard; it’s also technically edible, though the designers don’t recommend eating it.)

[Photo: courtesy Lexus Design Awards]

As they began developing the material and tweaked it to begin controlling its opacity and how it works with 3D printers, they began to think about how to do more with it. “We questioned [whether] it’s possible that we could embed a secondary layer or additional performance beyond the structural—whether or not we could purify the air, in this case,” he says. The material incorporates activated carbon, something that is already commonly used in air filters. Because it can be 3D-printed into any shape, the tiles are only one possible use of the material. The designers envision using it as a replacement in many items that are commonly made from plastic, such as packaging.

The design is still at an early stage, and the designers haven’t yet calculated what impact it could have on air quality. To begin to have an impact on CO2, it would have to be deployed at a large scale—and installing BioScale tiles on the exterior walls of a large building, for example, would pose some logistical challenges in terms of removing and replacing the tiles as they become saturated with smog. Still, it’s an interesting experiment: What if more materials not only reduced their own environmental impact, but also actively tried to go farther? “As we deal with whatever the environmental state is going to be as we move forward in the next few decades, I think it’s pretty vital that materials themselves are being designed with the same care as the products that they’re being applied to,” says Garett Sutherlin Santo.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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