It hopefully will be used to wrap sandwiches or carry baked goods instead of the cling wraps and plastics now on the market. The winning design for this year's international James Dyson Award is a plastic alternative made out of fish waste.

The material, called MarinaTex, was developed by Lucy Hughes, a 24-year-old product design graduate of the University of Sussex in the U.K.

"I have two major inspirations behind the project," Hughes says. "The first being our over-dependency on plastic and the damage it has subsequently caused to the environment. The second inspiration was learning about the principles of the circular economy, and how there is a viable system available that is restorative and regenerative by design. This inspired me to value waste as a resource."

MarinaTex baked goods bag The plastic could be used for the liner in bags for baked goods. (Photo: Dyson)

MarinaTex is made from organic fish waste that is destined for landfill and locally sourced red algae. It's flexible, strong and made in translucent sheets, making it ideal for single-use packaging. Unlike plastic, it fully biodegrades in home compost or recycling bins after four to six weeks without releasing any toxins into the environment.

Because there's so much waste from the fishing industry, the product helps "close the loop" of an existing waste stream. The product uses exoskeletons, fish skins and scales that contain strong and flexible protein structures, but are usually discarded. Hughes says that one Atlantic cod could generate enough organic waste to make 1,400 bags of MarinaTex.

"The project began by addressing and utilizing waste streams in the fishing industry," Hughes says. "This then developed into creating a material that could help tackle our overconsumption of single-use plastic film, in some applications. As a resident of Earth, this problem is hugely important to me. It's not sustainable to create 'solutions' that do not take into account all the parameters, footprint being one of them."

Solving the problems of tomorrow

The material is made from fish waste and algae. The material is made from fish waste and red algae. (Photo: Dyson)

To find a way for the proteins to bind together to create a new material, Hughes tried different materials. After more than 100 different experiments — most of which she performed on the kitchen stove in her student apartment — she settled on agar, a jelly-like substance that comes from some species of red algae. It took eight months of work and was her final project for her undergraduate degree.

“Plastic is an amazing material, and as a result, we have become too reliant on it as designers and engineers. It makes no sense to me that we’re using plastic, an incredibly durable material, for products that have a life-cycle of less than a day. For me, MarinaTex represents a commitment to material innovation and selection by incorporating sustainable, local and circular values into design."

The invention, which is not yet in production, beat more than 1,000 other entries, winning Hughes $35,000 in prize money. The international James Dyson Award is a student competition run by the James Dyson Foundation open to student inventors to "solve the problems of tomorrow."

With 27 nations competing, the foundation says 2019 saw the highest number of female entrants in the competition since it started in 2007.

“MarinaTex elegantly solves two problems: the ubiquity of single-use plastic and fish waste," founder Sir James Dyson says. "Further research and development will ensure that MarinaTex evolves further, and I hope it becomes part of a global answer to the abundance of single-use plastic waste.”

Mary Jo DiLonardo writes about everything from health to parenting — and anything that helps explain why her dog does what he does.

Young designer creates plastic alternative from fish waste and algae
Winner of international James Dyson Award invents marine bioplastic made of algae and fish parts.