Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A new company hopes to put record-breaking biomass blooms to more functional use in consumer goods.
This summer, for the eighth year in a row, residents of Qingdao, a Chinese coastal city, frolicked in a million tons of goopy green gunk. All over the world, algae is out of control.
Overabundant slicks can choke marine life and render once-potable water unusable. In 2014, a bloom of toxic algae in Lake Erie left nearly half a million residents of Toledo, Ohio, without clean water for drinking, cooking, or bathing. The blooms can also contain biotoxins that cause tingling, paralysis, and even death in humans and marine creatures, the Seattle Times noted. Jerry Borchert, Washington State’s marine biotoxin coordinator, told the paper that 2015 has seen record levels of dangerous algae:
“This has been a really bad year overall for biotoxins.”
Algae blooms are linked to warm water temperatures and high concentrations of phosphorous, largely the result of agricultural runoff. If that those trends continue, we’re poised to find ourselves with a bunch of slimy stuff overwhelming our shores. So what do we do with it?
One new company—cheekily named BLOOM, after the algae itself—hopes to turn the waterlogged plants into functional products. They won't fashion finished goods themselves, says managing director Ron Falken. Instead, the Mississippi-based company partners with another organization to suck the water out of the biomass, so it retains less than 5 percent of its total moisture.
Then it’s sent through a microwave system to remove pathogens before being polymerized into flexible foam. The squishy result will be marketed to existing manufacturers, and could be used for soft shoes or yoga mats.
Falken hopes that the foam could reduce dependence on petrochemicals. “We’re trying to turn a negative into a positive,” he says.