Plastic was once a miracle invention, but these days the wonder is wearing thin. Mounting pollution, the fact that plastic has an association with toxic substances, and its fossil fuel roots are just some of the reasons people are keen to find alternatives.
One of those alternatives is Zeoform, a material developed in Australia. Zeoform has many of plastic's qualities, according to its creators, but few of the downsides. Made just from cellulose and water, it is durable, yet compostable if left in the right conditions. By contrast, many plastics never break down at all.
The material is made either from plants with high cellulose content, like hemp, flax, straw, or with reclaimed waste, like paper and textiles, according to Zeoform CEO Alf Wheeler. It is ground down with water, dried, then formed into fine pellets or sheets, and can be sprayed or formed into any shape you want.
"It behaves like wood. You can sand it, polish it, coat it, whatever you like," Wheeler says. Early applications include lamps, furniture and wall coverings.
Wheeler says grinding cellulose "optimizes its surface area," allowing it to take on six times more water than its own weight. As it dries, a high amount of "fiber entanglement" ties the material together, giving Zeoform its strength. "The fibers make a lot of contact with each other. Everywhere that happens, there is an opportunity for a hydrogen bond. That is where the materials science is," he says.
Zeoform has a small factory in Australia. But it doesn't expect to become a manufacturing giant in its own right. Instead, Wheeler hopes other companies will license the technology, and improve on it in open-source fashion.
"The paper industry is really ripe for this," he says, mentioning one potential collaborator. "There's a lot of paper-making towns with lots of unemployed people. They already have the infrastructure in place to make this material. All they need is some intellectual property and a relatively cheap retrofit to their mill, and they can put people back to work."
To get the message out, Wheeler is fronting a crowdfunding campaign. The money raised will go towards setting up a center of excellence showcase in 2014. "We need is to get the material into the hands of as many designers, entrepreneurs, makers, artists as possible," he says.