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Monday, November 9, 2009

Plastic from Green Algae

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. Sometimes (especially in marketing), invention seems to be the  mother of necessity. In the case of Cereplast's announcement that it has developed a plastic made from green algae, perhaps both statements are true.

At first look, this seems to be a positive development. Harvesting a plentiful and renewable natural resource to replace petroleum-based plastics should be a good thing. It would certainly be better news than the harvesting of corn to make bio-fuels, which ties up rare agricultural land for fuel production.

However, we may have to examine our premises a bit more closely. Is green algae a plentiful natural resource? In The Vanishing Face of Gaia, James Lovelock notes that ocean algae is disappearing at an alarming rate as a result of global warming, and since ocean algae serve to reflect solar heat back into space, its disappearance is a further catalyst to global warming. Catch-22.

When we develop technological solutions, we should ensure the solutions are not creating new technological problems. We shouldn't confuse what we can do with what we should do, and every new energy technology needs to pass a simple, Hippocratic-type acid test: does it first of all do no harm?

Yes, we need to continue to research alternatives to petroleum-based products, but we also need to work on the behavioral aspects of the problem and reduce our dependence on such products.

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