In the last decade, there have been countless innovations in biobased materials - from mushroom leather to spider silk to seaweed plastic. More often than not though, access to these breakthrough materials remains limited to the big companies and brands that can make bulk orders, which leaves out individuals and groups of consumers who are interested and excited about innovations in this area.
Checkerspot, a materials innovation biotech company I have written about before, wants to change that. Earlier this month, they launched the Pollinator™ Kit to put renewable materials into the hands of anyone - big brands, small manufacturers, or individuals - who wants to design and build with biobased materials. The kit features Checkerspot’s algae-based polyurethane that allows designers and product developers to increase the renewable content of their prototypes and products.
In 2019, the company launched the outdoor brand WNDR Alpine, to show that biobased materials and products can compete with fossil fuel based alternatives. The launch of the Pollinator Kit is the company’s next step in helping the world transition away from fossil fuels. To learn more about the product, I spoke to Mitch Heinrich, the lead designer at Checkerspot for the Pollinator Kit and the Founder of what for, a design studio focused on sustainable materials and renewable energy product development.Christopher Marquis: What is the Pollinator Kit?
Mitch Heinrich: The Pollinator Kit is really two-fold. It's a program that we're launching to get new, innovative and more sustainable materials directly into the hands of the people who are most likely to take advantage of them and create change in the world. The Pollinator Kit is a sample pack, a test kit of Checkerspot polyurethane, which is a material derived from algae oil that has been created through fermentation. The Pollinator Kit is a way to make it very easy to create products and prototypes using more sustainable materials. We spent a lot of time designing the kit so that it is as easy as possible to use and as approachable as possible for people who have never touched this kind of fabrication before.
Marquis: What was the motivation behind the Pollinator Kit?
Heinrich: The Pollinator Kit was born out of a frustration that these materials, more sustainable versions of the materials that we use every day, are beginning to make the headlines very frequently, but are rarely ever available to actually purchase and put into products. We have a conviction that if we just got this material into the hands of designers, educators, and creators; the people who are ready to use them and are the most likely to make change. It’s also born out of the idea that Checkerspot has this technology that is ready to go and has already made its way into commercial products like skis and snowboards through their brand WNDR® Alpine. There is an opportunity to create additional impact by getting into more product lines. It was a win win.
Marquis: Why is it important to make these materials available directly to designers?
Heinrich: We see strong demand for sustainable materials from consumers. Now more than ever, people are willing to pay extra to get something that they feel better about owning. The idea that people are more conscious of what they consume has really gained in popularity. We see designers as being those change makers and tastemakers, the folks that are at the front end of those decision making processes. What is the product? What is it made out of? How does it fit into people's lives? What's the expected lifespan of that product? We see designers as being this amazing on-ramp or leverage point for making more impact in the world. By getting it into their hands, and making it as easy as possible for them to play and experiment with, we see it as the best way for the material to make it out into the world on a meaningful scale.
Marquis: What are some examples of things that could be made with it?
Heinrich: Pretty much anything plastic in your life can be made from this material. Polyurethanes are this very interesting polymer class that has the ability to span a huge range of properties so they could be squishy and foamy all the way to very rigid and very hard. Some of the things that we've played with in the lab and built out as prototypes are surf fins, skateboard wheels, phone cases, and we've even made some playable non-vinyl records using this material. If you have something on your desk, in your backpack or in your house that's made out of plastic, it's likely that a more renewable version could be made with this material.
Marquis: What is the difference in environmental impact between the Pollinator Kit and other cast urethanes?
Heinrich: Let’s take a quick step back. I think a lot of materials that are billed as being more sustainable have focused on the end of life. What happens to that product when you're done with it? That really skews towards these single use items like compostable cutlery, plates or cups, packaging, and that kind of thing. Not a lot has been done or talked about for a product’s beginning of life. That's where the Checkerspot material really has focused and shone. This material is made primarily out of an algae oil that is grown in fermenters using renewable feedstocks as opposed to the incumbent polyurethanes and other plastics that are generally made from natural gas or other petroleum products that are pumped out of the ground. That’s the key differentiating factor here - we are looking at the beginning of life for this material and how does that factor into their environmental footprint?
Marquis: Is it recyclable? Is it biodegradable?
Heinrich: Those are great questions to ask and I think people should be concerned about the lifecycle of products. The reality today is that plastic recycling does not exist in a meaningful way for the average consumer. That when you put something plastic into your recycle bin, the chances of it ending up as another version of that material or even some downgraded version of that material in a useful endcase or other product is very low. I've seen numbers in the single digit percentages of recycled plastics that actually make their way back into technical nutrient streams. Plastic recycling, unfortunately, is not a meaningful thing at the moment. That may change over time and likely will. But to answer the question, this material is not recyclable, instead our focus is on sustainability of feedstock, the beginning of life of a product, and product longevity or lifecycle. Things made from polyurethane are more likely to last longer because it's a more resilient and tough material compared to some other plastics in the world.
Marquis: How do designers get this?
Heinrich: You can go to the pollinatorkit.com website and purchase the kits directly from us. For designers who find value and interest in this material, we also have it available in much larger quantities. And you can get in touch with us if that’s the case.
Marquis: Who in the design community? Who is your target? Are they educators? Is it students? Is it garage tinkerers? Who can use this kit?
Heinrich: This kit is meant to be as accessible as possible, so anybody who's got a garage or a backyard is going to be able to create with the material from our kit. It's a very simple process of mixing two ingredients together in the right ratio. From that perspective, truly, nearly anybody can use this, follow the instructions and get good results. Who we anticipate getting the most value out of this material are folks who are either designers for product brands or designers who have their own product that they're developing and selling, as well as entrepreneurs and educators who are interested in bringing more sustainable materials into the world.