A product as a tool to enact change – Mujolab is not solely about creating a plastic alternative, but about opening a dialogue that spurs people to question and reflect
«The sea covers almost our whole planet, so why should we not cultivate something from the water? Algae grow autonomously and reduce the CO2 level in the ocean, which is too high due to our emissions. They clean the water and grow while binding Nitro Oxides. Cultivating them has a positive effect as they furthermore contain biopolymers», says Juli Neyenhus. The Covid-19 pandemic had a paradox twist, with packaging consumption increasing exponentially due to takeaway offers and hygiene gel bottle production. The antipole – start-ups working on sustainable solutions – gained momentum, thriving to turn people’s thoughts into action. One of these start-ups is Mujolab – the company, located in Berlin, commenced working on a sustainable plastic packaging solution in 2018. Building their concept around the raw material algae, the trio – Anne Kathrin Grüneberg, Juli Neyenhus, and Malu Lücking – followed their internal sensors for what the market was lacking. By working with the available, they have set themselves a challenge to create a circular plastic alternative, applicable in versatile environments, serving as packaging for liquid and dry products.
Plastic packaging – invented in 1907 by Leo Baekeland – embodies a sterile, durable option in diverse contexts that has not yet been outdated by other innovations. Derived from crude oil, natural gas, or coal, synthetic plastic compounds toxic ingredients that cannot be degraded by natural mechanisms. When disposed of, these blends pollute the environment and fret on nature’s ecosystems.
Amid the research process, Mujolab’s core concept stands firm: creating a product that changes the consumers’ perspective on their buying behavior and the environmental impact of their actions. «The idea is developing and designing a material that is non-toxic, water-soluble, and bio-based. When it degrades there is no harm for any being on this planet. Nature degrades as well – mushrooms, trees; they dismount harmlessly», highlights industrial engineer for chemistry, Anne Kathrin Grüneberg. She continues, «The plastic that is being used at the moment cannot degrade as there is no mechanism in nature that can degrade polypropylene. This plastic polyproline, proletaries will degrade in hundred thousand of years. They are permanent for our ecosystem and human beings, and end up in our life cycle. All that material accumulates and breaks down but does not degrade. We want to adapt the span of existence so it makes sense». Convinced that this complex issue needs to be approached through diverse strategies, algae or kelp’s sustainable solution qualified as their business focus. «It would not make sense only to use potato or corn starch. Complex issues require complex solutions». Algae or kelp is sourced from brown algae and combined with the polymer agar – extracted from red algae-, a plasticizer and additive to obtain the product, which can then be manufactured into a plastic alternative. The packaging option is designed to biodegrade in two (in summer months) to four months (during winter) and does not require extra agricultural land.
Lücking and Neyenhus, students and textile designers from the Kunsthochschule Weissensee, came across the material alginate prior to the founding of Mujolab. Acknowledging its potential and comprehending the challenges and perks the material holds, they decided to acquire complementing knowledge of chemists and scientists, who could disassemble the material and find out about its properties. Through their scientific collaboration with Anne Kathrin Grüneberg and the support of the Technical University Berlin and Design Farm, the Mujolab concept started to take shape.
What demands would their product have to encompass? How could function and degradability be guaranteed? «What we have observed is that the packaging needs to have different features for the performance than for the disposal. There is a lot of research required to enable that, and it is where the innovation lies – this discrepancy. It is an optimization problem. The more stable our alginate is, the harder it is to degrade. It is controversial as it needs to be unstable and stable at the same time», describes Grüneberg.
It is not solely the packaging for the food industry that spurs the founders of Mujolab. While seeing the food niche adapting to the sustainability demand, the cosmetic niche still has not shown initiative. Annually, the beauty industry produces 12 billion units of packaging globally. Quoting Beat the Microbead, only 9 percent of the waste is being recycled. «In the cosmetic field there are few things going on, compared to what is available in the food industry – reusable bags or fruit nets. Same for the waste separation: In the kitchen, you can separate things. In the bathroom, you have one bin. We imagine a product one could use in the bathroom context. Packaging that could dissolve and could be disposed of with the wastewater», explains Lücking. The aim: introducing a packaging that can supersede plastic cosmetic packaging, which, at the end of its usage, can be discarded through the water. No toxic substances would be involved, and no pollution precipitated. This concept has been confirmed as feasible by the Berliner Wasserbetriebe.
«Why should a product exist longer than the use is required? When the product life is over, what happens then? We are trying to figure out the answers to these questions. Every living creature sustains itself when alive, and the older it gets, the more you can recognize the age. This is the same with our product – you can see it degrade». The difficulty of alginate would lie in the performance of the product when exposed to liquid or heat, as kelp behaves differently to synthetic plastics. Thriving to find the balance between impermanence and durability, they have accepted that set-backs and rethinking accompany and slow the research process and realization of the final multi-layered biodegradable plastic alternative.
To adapt their principles to the product’s properties, Mujolab emulates nature’s mechanisms to attune with their product. «Packaging on the market defines its features through the multilayers of the material. These layers create different properties; just like nature does. Thinking about an orange: they have their peel, a transition layer, and antibacterial etheric oils; it is a composition. We seek to accomplish layers to create properties that are needed for certain phases. For alginate, we have acquired this feeling, and now we start with the additional materials. Biodegradable multilayers are what the world needs», tells Grüneberg. «Whether our current material works or not is dependent on the case of the packaging – What do we want the packaging for? If it is a layer that holds ingredients like spinach or loose leaves, then our product can be utilized already as there is no such water or oxygen barrier required. If there are strong property barriers needed, then we still have to figure out how to meet these criteria with our product».
When asking what impermanence means to their concept, Lücking recalls the definition of today’s excessive society, framed by «fast-consumption, fast-fashion, fast-everything». Observing the short period it took for globalization and capitalism to evolve and overtake control, Mujolab understands that the time span cannot be seen as proportionate to the thousands of years nature took to develop its mechanisms. «Taking into consideration how long it took for the world to be where it is today and comparing the time to nature, it underlines how difficult it is to combine these two». Ensuring that their research processes can be understood and traced by the customers, the trio communicates to all the stakeholders involved in the operation. «During our customer research we found out that the whole topic of biopolymer or bioplastics is intransparent. We need to communicate about the topic and have this transparency. The user has to get informed and be enabled to decide and choose this biodegradable packaging. Going one step further, we try to make waste a pleasurable experience through our product», emphasizes Neyenhus. This would be assured by working after the three pillars of feasibility, viability, and desirability. Mujolab should not solely be about creating an alternative, but about opening a dialogue that spurs people to question and reflect; a product as a tool to enact change. Grüneberg adds, «We are in this luxury situation that we start and decide everything from scratch. There are no restrictions from a higher level or need to rebuild structures. Building this circular life-cycle loop requires communication and relationship-building, understanding for each other and creativity. We need to figure out win-win situations, issues and aspects of every stakeholder so that we can adapt our design». Thereby they do not mind admitting if they do not have the answer to a question, as their research is ongoing. «Sometimes not having the answer and conceding is one aspect of transparency»– not pretending but expanding from questions.
Expecting to attract people who are aware of the issue, they plan to engage with those groups who are not yet questioning climate developments. «We want to activate people who, in another way, might not be interested in that. Trying to get the information through active participation and engagement with the material». Selling their product to replace plastics is their secondary aim. Mujolab thrives on making people reuse and become aware of their ecological footstep. «Packaging is still something that is needed; just its life cycle is in no relation to the product and use. People do realize the impact our behavior has on nature. Humans got this idea of controlling everything: The way we move and all these things that enable us to be in a better position than all other creatures. During the lockdown, we did not have power. People were forced to reflect on consumption; all these influences they have on the environment. We cannot guess what is going to happen in the future. Will this behavior reverse? Even if 10 percent of these people stick to what they have thought about during this period would be a progress».
About 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by the ocean, while 97 percent of the water available on earth emanates from the sea’s vastness. According to the National Geographic, the company of plastics, stemming from overproduction and disposal issues, endangers the lives within these ecosystems and is expected to triple by 2040 to 29 million metric tons of plastic.IMAGE GALLERY
About 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by the ocean, while 97 percent of the water available on earth emanates from the sea’s vastness. According to the National Geographic, the company of plastics, stemming from overproduction and disposal issues, endangers the lives within these ecosystems and is expected to triple by 2040 to 29 million metric tons of plastic.
Mujolab – an initiative that works toward banning durable materials for short-life products by producing algae based packaging materials. The team of Mujolab is based in Berlin, Germany.