At 23, Lucy Hughes — who recently graduated as product designer at the University of Sussex — is a few years older than climate activist (and current dance music star) Greta Thunberg. But these two young women clearly have something in common: within their generation, they belong to the inspiring group of people who are giving hope and mobilizing the rest of us to read, reflect, discuss, actively take part in climate-oriented initiatives and make changes to our everyday lives in order to help save our planet.
Lucy recently won the 2019 national James Dyson Award with her graduation project, which originated from a brilliant idea: use organic waste from the fishing industry to develop a kind of bioplastics, aptly called MarinaTex, that seems to tick all the boxes required to replace, in the not-too-distant future, a lot of the plastic we reluctantly use daily. Want to get a sneak peek? Check out the brief, gorgeous video below and tell us: isn’t she one of the coolest girls you’ve ever seen? We’ve been lucky enough to have a chat with her, and this is what she said.
Could you explain in a nutshell how Marinatex is made and what will its most useful applications be once it’s fully available?
MarinaTex is made using proteins from biological fishing waste. My project started off at a fishing processing plant: I went there, identified their waste stream and came away with a bag of skins, a bag of scales and other kinds of waste they have. I started to explore and I found it was actually the skins and scales that had the most potential combined with the protein. I experimented with organic binders and ended up using red algae, which is a common cooking ingredient, especially for vegetarian people.
I carried out different experiments to work out the best combination of things that would allow me to create a tactile material. The whole production process is relatively low-tech — I made it in my kitchen! So it’s not going to need a big, scary industrial process. It uses temperatures below 100°C — while with plastics, you must reach at least 150°C, which makes that an energy-hungry process.
As for its applications, MarinaTex is completely biodegradable. This isn’t totally new, since biodegradable materials have been around quite a lot, but it’s also home-compostable, which means it degrades between 4 and 6 weeks in a hot-compost environment, in which temperatures range between 44°C and 79°C.
It’s also translucent, so its most impactful application would be to replace single-use plastics, from bakery bags to all sorts of packaging that have a window that allows people to see things before they buy them. Statistics on consumer behaviour have shown this to be important for people, so I don’t think companies are willing to give up that window.
Until MarinaTex makes its way to our shelves, is there any good enough alternative among the materials available for us to use in our kitchens and our homes in general? Each of them seems to have pros and (a lot of) cons…
There are some great products that help consumers to reduce plastic consumption in the home. A good example of this is Beeswax wraps. Other ways include switching back to the milkman to reuse glass bottles, switching to a wooden toothbrush and using natural sponges – as microfibres from plastic sponges end up in the waterways and then the ocean (this is also the case when washing clothing made from polyester, nylon, acrylic and polyamide).
There has been a lot of interest in MarinaTex and all bioplastics, which seems to prove that society is ready for them — but unfortunately the options that are available for the moment don’t seem too satisfying yet. So what’s missing for us to be able to get to a plastic-free, zero-waste world? Anything we ordinary people can do to help speed up the process?
As for what’s missing, I think governments are being too slow to act. Especially the UK government — unfortunately we’re busy with other things at the moment, so everything else has kind of slipped down the agenda.
At the moment, when there aren’t as many alternatives on the market, possibly it all starts with behaviour change. So in the short term, while the right systems aren’t quite in place, you could perhaps consider not getting a coffee cup at a shop, but bringing your own.
As a consumer, you can change your choices too. It might take a little effort to make those changes, but if you think it’s worthwhile, you can do it. Personally, after working on this for a couple of years now, I’ve gotten to a point where I go into a shop and I kind of wince whenever I have to buy a bit of plastic. It’s a body reaction I get, and I think “Oh God!”, since I’m so aware of the damage this is doing.
Also, we need to convince companies that they should look for long-term gains rather than being focused on short-term wins. And this is where as consumer, you have so much power. I think people always underestimate how much power they have.
I was at a talk at Sky yesterday, and their head of PR was on stage and she was saying: “This is what customers want, so this is what we’re going to do.” I don’t think we’re ever told that as customers, and it would help us to realize they’re actually listening to us. I’m a customer myself, and I do have a voice.
So what we can do to speed up the process is to make our voices be heard: contact the companies you think could improve and tell them what you think, because at the end of the day, how they make their money is through you, and that’s how they survive.
Speaking of the power we have as consumers, could you give us any examples of “good” consumer brands we could reward?
One of the leading brands in this field is Patagonia. They’ve got a really good repair & return scheme, but as an outdoor brand, they’ve also got lakes they’re protecting. I definitely always endorse their message.
Another useful thing can be just switching to Ecosia instead of Google as your search engine. For every search you do, they plant a tree.
A question from eco-‘s CEO David Douek: How sustainable are both MarinaTex and bioplastics in general, if you take the whole value chain into account?
Take bamboo socks, for instance. Great! Bamboo! But when you dig in, you see a lot of chemicals are used, and a lot of energy as well, to turn it into something that looks like a tissue. How sustainable is that? And how can we ordinary consumers distinguish genuinely sustainable options from the rest?
This is a really, really good question, and it doesn’t have an easy answer. Basically, each case is completely unique. It’s not like plastic, where there are these common processes that have been established over 70 years. At the moment, everything is at a quite early stage. And consumers don’t want to have to do that research, they want to be told: and if they’re told that something is sustainable, they shouldn’t be lied to, but unfortunately that’s a trend that’s already begun.
I think the best way to do it is just follow reputable sources of information — like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation — and look for companies and materials that have been endorsed by people who are doing the correct research.
Regarding MarinaTex and sustainability, this is my undergraduate project and I’m now looking to scale up and looking for the best way to commercialize it — and the starting point for me was: there is a problem and I want to solve it. I’m not a businesswoman who has seen an opportunity, I’m a designer that’s trying to solve a problem. So if it any point my product isn’t doing that, and it’s causing more harm than good, it means it’s not the correct solution — and I’m more than happy to reevaluate it, because that’s what I value.
Just as an example: considering how we look at the business model of a company, traditionally, you’ve made it if you go global. And a big part of me doesn’t know if that’s the right way to go. In my eyes, I’d actually quite like to go more local. For me, it’s less about finding materials from China and shipping them; I want to be able to create minimal impact and localized solutions.
I think for people like me, it’s about finding the right support networks, and the companies that are funding the right people and doing things the right way and not cutting corners — which means that it’s going to be a longer process.
One of these trustworthy companies, from my point of view, is Sky Ocean Ventures, an investment fund that works with Innovate UK; they vet different companies, and they have really good values at heart.
That is why I can’t say MarinaTex going to be available in a year. I don’t know what kind of challenges I will face, since every case is unique.
How did you come up with such a “poetic” solution – that is, to help save the fish in our oceans by turning waste material from the fish itself into an alternative to plastics? I’m wondering if you happened to grow up by the ocean for instance, since you live in Sussex.
I actually grew up in Twickenham, in Soutwest London. But I love diving, and as soon as I was old enough to dive, when I was 12 years old, I got my diving certificate. I think it was at that point that the ocean opened up to me — before then I was just looking at it from the surface level, because that’s what I could see, but as soon as I got underneath the waves, I could see how diverse and also how fragile it is.
I lived in the Bahamas for three months, I did some conservation work there, and we got to dive off places that weren’t tourist destinations; they were protected areas, and it was quite crazy to see what reefs should look like. It was a unique opportunity, and now when I dive while I’m on holiday, I see different reefs that have sort of been destroyed. I think having that contrast between what they should look like and what they do look like was a big eye-opener.
In terms of the solution I’ve found through MarinaTex, I started off knowing I wanted to work with a waste product, because my values as a designer are kind of contradictory with my title as product designer. I came to the conclusion that it’s the products that are the problem… after spending 3-4 years training myself to design them. That didn’t sit well with me at all, and it made me think that everything I would design to solve certain kinds of problems would open up other problems.
If I wanted to make something, normally I would have to use plastics. You don’t really think about the material usually. It comes last. And that’s what didn’t sit well with me: I wanted to focus more on the materials and see if there was something else I could do — and I knew that if I did want to use no virgin material coming from the earth, I would need to work with a waste product.
My lecturer, Claire Potter, does a lot of work with the group called Ghost Gear to get rid of the fishing nets that have been left in the ocean, and she is a big circular economy advocate; she was doing a project with the guys of the fishing processing plant in New Haven, to review how much polystyrene they use, and she was designing a new modular concept for them, so she put us in touch.
Plastic was on my mind because in Brighton, where I live, we’re strongly in favour of cleaning up the oceans, and we have a lot of good initiatives going on — we have a beach, so there’s a lot of beach cleaning activities. So I always thought that was the big issue. We would go down to the beach with my friends and there was plastic all over — it’s not as obvious, because it’s a pebble beach, but it was something that was always close to our hearts.
Was it diving, then, that made you develop an interest in environment protection? And how did that eventually lead you to take the leap and turn it into your specialization and hopefully your profession?
With anything you want to protect in life, it always starts off with respect, love and joy. So I think diving definitely gave me that, and made me feel “Gosh, I need to protect this!”.
And then it was definitely being at university in Brighton, which as I said, is really ahead of the game in terms of sustainable and circular design, on a par with only one or two other universities in the UK.
Obviously I had that kind of passion for long, but what did it for me was learning about the issues, and learning about the role that design has to play in those issues and their solutions. I felt a bit powerless before then — but studying at university, I felt empowered. I felt that I was in the best position, and that designing out the problem was the best way I could help.
You already mentioned some of the ways this awareness shapes your daily life. Do you actually think eco-friendly or zero-waste in everything you do? How does this affect your social and family relationships?
It’s definitely changed the way I am. But I think it’s also about not setting too high expectations for yourself, and being kind to yourself in any type of behaviour change, whether that be exercise, or diet… This is just one of those things where if you set yourself too high of a pedestal, you end up letting yourself down. So it’s about making little changes here and there.
One of the biggest things I found really tough was trying to make my flatmates recycle properly. I didn’t want to cause any rifts, nor did I want to keep telling them off the whole time — so I ended up cleaning bits of their recycling stuff and not bringing it up.
All in all, I think little and often is the best way to go.
Apart from the things you already mentioned, do other things come to mind that each of us could do in our daily life to move closer to a zero-waste lifestyle?
Something I do daily is, I can’t remember the last time I bought a plastic water bottle, because I always carry a bottle in my bag. I think that’s something that’s quite achievable. I also always carry a tote bag, in case I want to take something from a shop.
You can also put your vegetables in that bag. For example, I was in Carrefour in France last month, and they have those plastic bags you put your vegetables in; I had taken my tote bag with me, and I put them all in it and stuck all the stickers with the weight and price of each onto the bag itself. I got a very funny look from the French lady, and she did have a look in the tote bag check I wasn’t stealing vegetables, but it worked.
It’s little things like that. Whenever I go to a coffee shop, I understand that carrying a coffee cup can sometimes be a bit messy or whatever, but I will just sit in. I will use a china cup. If I want a coffee, I’ll either avoid that, or I will allow myself the time to sit and have it that way, rather than in one of those plastic cups.
Since we’re approaching the end of the interview, are there any other messages you’d like to give our readers?
I think it’s important to say that plastic isn’t a bad material. It’s actually amazing, and it’s life-changing — even life-saving in some cases. I don’t want there to be this kind of hate toward plastic; the pressure should be focused towards how it’s used and why it’s used in those situations. For us as consumers, it’s all about high demand, and we want everything right now, and plastic in some ways is the best material for that. But I think it’s all about reassessing the product life cycle and finding the correct natural materials for the correct life cycle of the product. The product doesn’t end when the consumer is finished with it; it ends when it’s disposed of. Otherwise we’re just going to keep making things and piling them up, and that’s a completely unsustainable way to live.
This makes one more question come to mind: does the plastic we throw in the proper recycling container actually get recycled? If so, why don’t we just keep using it and recycling it without feeling guilty about it — and use our time to persuade other people to always recycle, instead of going zero-waste?
In terms of recycling, only about 9% of plastic globally ends up being recycled. That is such a small percentage, even though everyone is trying to do good — all that plastic might not ever be recycled, so the best way to do it is to avoid using it.
It all depends on the different applications: in the medical industry, for instance, we need plastic, because it’s the best way to save lives, for it to be sanitary. But basically we’ve just got too plastic-happy, and we’ve got quite lazy as designers, and also lazy as consumers, and this is affecting our planet.
Even if we recycle, we should keep in mind that the different types of plastic can be recycled a different amount of times. Some of them can only be recycled one other time, others 6 or 7 times. This information hasn’t been conveyed to many people, it’s something that not many people know — but it means that if we want to use plastic, we need to be using those types of plastic that can be recycled multiple times.
It’s very hard to change other people’s behaviours. We’ve all shown it’s quite hard to change our own. So I think as an individual, you have the most amount of power to change your own decisions. You should share the message as much as you can, obviously. But I think the most efficient way is to change your own behaviours.
Time to close with the inevitable silly question: MarinaTex doesn’t actually smell like fish, does it?
No, it doesn’t! It’s completely odourless, and it’s definitely not fishy. In the early days, it was — so it took a number of experiments to get a formula that doesn’t smell like fish, which is good 🙂
(Interview conducted by Matteo Vegetti)