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Innovation Earth: Is Zeoform The Plastic Of The Future?

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I'm outside on a Sunday afternoon writing this column, so ostensibly I should be enjoying the cloudless blue sky and soft breeze as it whispers through the trees and across my shoulders, but there's something adulterating my little slice of nature: plastic.

The trash and recycling bins by the gate, the grill parked in the corner of the yard, the pots holding our neighbors' begonias, the air conditioning compressor, the cover on our electrical meter, the sprinkler heads, the coating of the telephone wires overhead, the tape recorder I'm using to transcribe my interview, the computer keys I'm striking as I type ... All of it non-biodegradable and downcyclable at best, manufactured from a finite supply of fossil fuels and inundated with toxic chemicals that will persist in our ecosystem for decades, leaching into ground and ocean water while the plastic itself breaks apart into tiny bits that will contaminate the animals that eat them and ultimately us, when we consume those animals.

The spread of plastic across our planet has been fast and unrelenting. A century ago, there were celluloid hair combs and not much else; now there are plastic trash vortexes the size of Texas polluting our oceans. Unlike some environmentalists, I am not completely anti-plastic -- I'm realistic about the world in which we now live, and am grateful for the car seats protecting my small children, for instance, as I drive on the freeway here in Los Angeles. But do we have to use so much plastic unnecessarily? How did we unleash this mess onto the earth without a care as to how to clean it up? Wouldn't it be great if we could have a do-over, to create a new plastic that doesn't pollute?

One Australian start-up thinks it may have the answer with something it calls Zeoform, a new patented industrial material made from cellulose fibers and water -- and nothing else, the company, Zeo, insists -- that could potentially replace plastics and resins in a host of consumer and commercial applications. Unlike other lightweight plant-based plastics on the market, which have been popping up in everything from packing peanuts to soda bottles, Zeoform can replace harder, more durable petroleum-based building materials for which there are few sustainable alternatives. (Such as the aforementioned car seat, though Zeoform has yet to undergo extensive third-party safety testing.)

Also unlike other bioplastics, which can contaminate existing recycling streams and may or may not ever truly biodegrade, Zeo says its new alternative is fully recyclable and compostable (note: this is different than "biodegradable," which is a deceptive claim) -- without affecting its durability or the life of the product.

Zeoform's manufacturing process exploits the natural process of hydrogen bonding, taking a patented matrix of cellulose fibers and activating it with water (no glues required) to create a fire-resistant material that can be sprayed, shaped or molded into any form. Zeoform can also be made to different densities -- from cork-like to as hard as ebony -- resulting in a wide range of possibilities: home construction, plastics in the aviation and automotive industries, musical instruments and much to my eco relief, even those little doohickey connectors you're left with every time you build a piece of Ikea furniture. "The potential is all there, and the material will obviously become cheaper as the technology is more widely adopted, " says a spokesperson for the company.

Since it can be sourced from otherwise landfill-bound sources of cellulose like waste paper and even old clothing, Zeoform also offers a sustainable alternative to even natural materials like wood, which can come at the cost of destroying old-growth forests. And because the only other ingredient is water, it's also free of the toxic chemicals found in MDF, an engineered wood product (hello again, Ikea!) that has been called into question for its link to respiratory illness and cancer.

At present, the Zeoform proof-of-concept plant has been devoted to producing eco-artisan objects like lamps and didgeridoos (at long last!), but at least one major car company has already expressed interest. Zeo is also hoping its market will expand with the decision to make Zeoform's technology open source, a strategy that Tesla is trying with its supersonic Hyperloop.

Want to get involved? Zeoform will officially launch in October at the Los Angeles Green Festival. The company is also hoping to raise $10 million via its own crowdfunding campaign, an approach that could see additional momentum with the unveiling of Title II of the JOBS Act.

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