Solutions Summit | June 2023

Michael D. Pulliam


A team at University of Leeds in the U.K. has turned an invasive species of seaweed into a compostable alternative to plastic cling wrap. The product can withstand heat and it biodegrades in a matter of weeks.

Hailing from Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean, Keeran Reed worked with a team at University of Leeds to transform an invasive seaweed that has been inundating the shores of Trinidad and Tobago. The brown seaweed called sargassum (Sargassum natans) consists of long chains of molecules very similar to those in conventional plastics. With relatively minimal processing — a mixture of salt, acid, and a few other chemicals — the seaweed becomes pliable, thick, and capable of stretching into long sheets of film. The result is a type of biopolymer.

Existing compostable plastic alternatives can take months or a year to decompose in a compost heap; the sargassum compound needed just one week. And even though it can break down relatively quickly in those conditions, the sargassum film was robust at temperatures around 450 F (230 C). In another test, the film didn’t leach out any of its chemical components when soaked in water for 10 days. These results suggest the film is a viable option for the many hot, cold, and damp applications that businesses, restaurants, and home cooks use cling wrap for.

“Studying the whole supply chain really is where ideas for sustainable materials make it or don’t,” said one of the researchers. “We want to find one best application for our material and study the environmental impact of pursuing it from the lab to the consumer.” To that end, the team will have to test how the seaweed product holds up to current plastic wrap production processes. Factories that produce large quantities of plastic wrap do so by blowing enormous plastic bubbles and forming sheets from there. If the sargassum product cannot be mass-produced by similar means, the team will begin calculating how much water and energy would be required by a new production method.

In general, seaweeds are highly versatile plants. In countries around the world, different types of seaweed are being transformed and tested as materials for all sorts of uses. From baby diapers to jet fuel to medicine for cows to ocean decontaminants to packaging to cosmetics, the future of seaweed is full of possibilities.

Source: Good News Network


The lagoons of Baja Sur, Mexico are the site of whale-petting ecotours, a way to safely meet the gray whale’s desire for affection and fund local marine conservation.

Naturalist Jim Dorsey has been guiding ecological tourism activities in Baja Sur for over two decades. He says the three lagoons, which are a whale sanctuary and UNESCO World Heritage Site, are the only places in the world where wild animals seek physical contact without being attracted by food offerings. A 40-ton gray whale will reach her massive head out of the water so you may pet her chin, or roll over and ask for a belly rub, or open her mouth to get a good tongue scratch — a tongue which can weigh 3,000 pounds. Some gray whale mothers will even buoy their calf up near the boat to make sure the young ones get some love. “Their calves are just like human infants,” Dorsey explains, “bumping into you, tumbling, playing. They don’t know their own strength yet.”

It’s not clear why gray whales seek human contact, especially considering the violent history between whales and humans. Around the world, whales were hunted for centuries, some species nearly to extinction, until many anti-whaling laws were passed. The last commercial whaling station in Baja Sur closed as recently as 1971. Dorsey speculates that whales “were always friendly; humans just never gave them the chance to show it,” going on to say, “They do not fight among themselves. They openly display affection and protect the weaker among them.” Even though gray whales were once nicknamed ‘devil fish’ because of how fiercely they fought to protect young calves from whalers, the Baja area has had zero reports of any whale attacking a ship since whaling was outlawed.

More than 3,000 gray whales migrate from Alaska to the Baja area every winter (5,000 miles each way), and many mother whales give birth in the safe, warm lagoons. In the 2022-23 season, scientists counted 268 whales in the smallest lagoon alone, 50 of them mothers with calves. The area has seen a lot of teamwork between conservationists, local government, commercial fishing cooperatives, and ecotourism agencies in order to preserve the waters and the life they shelter.

Whale researcher Asha de Vos says, “Everybody thinks we want to protect the whales because they’re charismatic and magnificent….They’re ecosystem engineers — without them, the oceans wouldn’t function properly…. [We should] respect these animals in their own homes, not just for their sake, but also for our sake.” Source: Reasons to be Cheerful