Potato peelings to most are pretty irrelevant. But they certainly aren’t in the circular economy and material science world.
Despite being comprised of over 80% wood, common and multipurpose material MDF (medium-density fibreboard) is non-biodegradable – it can’t be broken down.
This is because it is bound with urea formaldehyde, a type of thermosetting resin, which enables the material to have a high tensile strength.
It also means that MDF and other fibreboards, like chipboard and hardboard, are often either sent to landfill or incinerated after use – unnecessarily polluting the environment.
In fact, it’s estimated that around a third of the 100 million tonnes of material annually produced goes straight into the bin.
The solution? The pulpy waste from the humble spud could be a viable substitute, even forming the core part of your next sofa, cutlery set and interior design project.
Rowan Minkley, co-founder & CEO of Chip[s] Board LTD, told The Manufacturer: “Rob [co-founder] started buying whole potatoes from supermarkets. I also worked in a few kitchens when I was at university, so I thought why not use the chip off-cuts from work?” He continues, “We started thinking about utilising waste material instead of using virgin starch. It was a very hands on trial and error process.”
In their bio-tech lab in Shepherds Bush, West London, Chip[s] has devised materials that are sustainable alternatives to chipboard and MDF made from discarded potato waste. Unlike its resin-based counterparts, Chip[s] materials are biodegradable after use and don’t contain formaldehyde or any other toxic resins and chemicals.
During the process, the potato peelings are compacted to form a chemical-free and robust material that is reportedly highly resistant to water and capable of disintegrating in a composting facility.
The materials can be used to construct temporary and permanent structures, generate fashion products, and even be cast into different forms such as biodegradable cutlery.
Minkley [pictured above] adds: “The biggest impact we can have on the industry is to transform it. Rather than trying to compete with MDF, we want to stop people using it and get them to produce this material instead. We would license it to existing manufacturers, so we would make sure our process works similarly to how MDF is produced. We currently have a patent pending.”
Minkley also won this year’s most encouraging young entrepreneur award from the Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Hub this month because of the innovative business venture. The 23-year-old was chosen by a panel of experts and business leaders.
Sourcing their spuds
At present, the business is working with the biggest chip manufacturer in the world, McCain. It’s using the company’s bi-products to make new materials. But, they aren’t going to stop at potatoes.
Minkley explains: “Our aim is to look for industrial bi-products that can be transformed with material science, for example we are also looking at other feedstocks we could use. We’ve started talking to international industrial manufacturers, because there is so much waste we can utilise that is already in abundance.
“This is the future and what everything should be aligned to, we are at present using so many more resources than is feasibly possible for the earth to provide us with. We really need to rethink our mind set.”
Using a circular economy model could reduce waste, drive greater resource productivity, position businesses to better address emerging resource security/scarcity issues in the future and help reduce the environmental impacts of production and consumption globally. Minkley explains the importance of Chip[s] circular economy concept.
“Our material brings circular economy to material science because there are a lot of industries where products have short life-cycles, for example pop-up shops could be half a day to three months, but at the end of that the material will go straight into the bin because no one can afford or wants to store it. That’s where we come in.”
Using an appropriate material
Choosing the right material is crucial, not only because of its relevant properties to applications, but also for its impacts on the environment. Minkley considers plastic as a material. “It is an incredible material, but only in certain uses. Straws, nappies and single use plastics are being thrown into the bin every second, that is not an appropriate material. If you consider it instead as part of the inside of high tech computers or medical equipment, then sure it could be.”
Plastic is a fantastic material for its properties, strong, durable and cheap. Perhaps then plastic or other materials are not the problem. The waste created by them being inappropriately used is the real issue. This of course, was largely not a consideration in previous years. However, now materials need to align with a circular economy concept and be entirely appropriate from their creation, use and then disposal.
Minkley concludes: “One of the biggest changes in product design at the moment is design for disassembly and repair. It is the same with flat-pack furniture, it is designed to be built it’s not designed to be taken apart again. That is something that needs to be changed and a lot of designers are doing that. Being able to repair something or design what happens for the end of a product’s life, is just as important as designing the product itself.”