Doing good with good design: products that championed sustainability and activism
by Jincy IypeDec 28, 2022
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Almas SadiquePublished on : Apr 27, 2023
From amongst the wide range of paraphernalia designed to fulfil the recreational needs of children, sewing kits, Lego blocks and clay often garner amplified interest and involvement—on account of their ability to help individuals explore their imagination and build tangible objects that evince novel and individual ideas. Play things such as soft toys, wooden horses or even rattles, on the other hand, no matter how colourful or vibrant, are static objects—creations that leave little to no scope for personalisation or experimentation. Interactions with customisable objects enhance the mental wellbeing of individuals. They incite curiosity, encourage play and experimentation, and foster a collaborative environment where many can come together to create one edifice or build multiple structures and objects, ready to interact and add to each other. Despite these findings and realisations, as adults, we continue to accumulate and surround ourselves with objects and products—especially those that strongly ascribe to extant trends and styles—designed in a permanent visage, for a designated purpose.
A recent innovation that aims to break this mould of permanence and deter from the creation of archetypal objects that develop and evolve in an oligarchical creative ecosystem is the Pollinator™ Kit, developed by US-based biotechnology company Checkerspot. The Pollinator™ Kit comprises algae-based resin—in liquid form—that can be structured and shaped as one desires. In doing so, the kit becomes a tool for free creative expression, by not just designers, but creative enthusiasts of all ages and abilities.
"Historically, product designers, hobbyists, and artists have been limited by the materials available to them from commodity-based suppliers. The Pollinator Kit is bringing these biomanufactured materials straight to their workshop, garage, or design studio, and empowering people who are hungry for a better way to make products where they are," shares Charles Dimmler, CEO and co-founder of Checkerspot. The polyurethane in the kit allows designers and creatives to build renewable and long lasting products, with a biobased content of more than 50 per cent. "We are seeding these new, sustainable materials from the grassroots level, where we think creativity grows best," adds Dimmler.
Checkerspot is a company that designs, manufactures and platforms the creation of sustainable, high-performance materials that go beyond the fulfilment of their quintessential roles and aim, instead, to involve their end users in the process of developing products that come out of the materials created by them. Named after Edith Checkerspot Butterfly, a threatened species that is found, amongst a few other regions, in the San Francisco Bay Area, the moniker symbolises the company’s commitment to building a more sustainable future by developing materials, products and mechanisms that are durable, renewable, customisable and are better alternatives for the environment and for our future generations. They specialise in designing materials at a molecular level by optimising microbes to biomanufacture unique structural oils that were previously inaccessible at a larger commercial scale. After the manufacture and commercialisation of cast urethane and a light-weight urethane-based composite, the company recently developed the Pollinator™ Kit.
“We product designers find ourselves in a position where the decisions we make, and the causes we advocate for, have great consequence in the environmental impact of manufactured products. Getting more sustainable and better performing materials into the hands of our fellow designers has been a passion project for myself and the whole Pollinator™ Kit design team,” shares Mitch Heinrich., lead designer for the Pollinator™ Kit and founder of What For Design, a design consultancy that specialises in sustainable product development and the prototyping of climate positive technologies.
The polyurethane in the Pollinator™ Kit can be coloured in a number of hues and shades and shaped in various forms and sizes. Originally, they are available in a jade green shade, a colour tone that is blistered in the material due to the algal pigment. This subtle hue evokes the image of cerulean ceramics. These specifically designed materials facilitate rapid prototyping and product applications that call for precision and high quality surface finishes. The same equipment, moulds, and procedures utilised when working with polyurethane formulations derived from fossil fuels can be used when moulding these biobased resins.
What differentiates the resin in the Pollinator™ Kit is the usage of microalgae—instead of the utilisation of fossil fuel inputs—to convert sugars into oils. Checkerspot utilises the oil to shape the chemical building blocks for the polyurethane resins. It is the structural purity of the microalgal oil that enables the creation of enriched biobased content. Fossil fuel-derived polyurethanes are ubiquitously found around us, from mattress foams and floor coatings to textile adhesives, construction materials and electronics. Its bio-based alternative, hence, presents a big opportunity for the integration of a renewable resource within everyday objects.
Delineating the process of production, Checkerspot shares, “Microalgae are the original oil manufacturers. Much of the petroleum available today is actually the remains of prehistoric microalgae from back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. By going directly to the source and utilising oils made from living microalgae, we are eliminating 65 million years of geologic time and petroleum extraction in the process. Over those 65 million years, microalgae have evolved to be highly efficient oil-producing factories. Through biotechnology, we are able to harness the power of microalgae’s natural process of making oil at scale to create renewable building blocks for materials that have historically been made with petroleum. Let sleeping dinos lie and leave that carbon locked up in the ground.”
Everything, from the polyurethane resin, the pigment used to colour it, and the ink used on the packaging and the user manual of the Pollinator™ Kit are derived from algae. The mixing stick in the kit, meant for blending the two ingredients of the polyurethane system, is made from resin, too. The stick, hence, serves as a prototype of the casted resin, exhibiting both the colour and the flexibility of the final product. The lightweight and user-friendly packaging of the kit further reduces the environmental footprint of the product design.
The utility of the Pollinator™ Kit is simple. It does not make massive promises and does not present itself as a material that can be used to build colossal edifices or technically and technologically sophisticated machines. Instead, it presents itself as a material ready to absorb the creative reveries of the layman, while also serving as a means to build small utilitarian objects or parts of larger items, for daily usage, such as phone cases, rock climbing holds, earrings, furniture, knife handles, surf fins, wall hangers, drawer pulls, pen holders, skate wheels, and more.
One of the many designers and innovators who experimented with the Pollinator™ Kit is Jeff Lenore, a surf enthusiast, educator, creator, innovator, and founder of Waves Not Plastic, an organisation that aims to spread awareness about plastic pollution. He built Fin en France, a surf fin, using the biobased polyurethane resin. Regarding this collaboration, he shares, “Excited to be working with regenerative materials that have a beginning of life cycle consistent with the values and ethos of surfers and environmental stewards. The Pollinator Kit has provided our small non-profit with the materials and tools needed to innovate, develop, and create high performance products from our small workshop. This has been an incredible opportunity to create change in the surf industry without the large startup costs needed to develop new materials.”
Another experiment with the material, as done by Interwoven Design Group, a product design studio, based in Brooklyn, New York and specialising in smart textile solutions and wearable technology, is the Interwoven Block, a series of sample material blocks, with varied textures and different colours. Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman, founder of Interwoven Design Group, shares, “By 3D printing a mould and then casting it in urethane we can see the part, test its durability and function and make any adjustments in the design before sending a part out for vacuum casting or injection molding. This saves time and money.”
A few other experiments with the material have led to the creation of Unicorn Head!, a sculptural head of the mystical creature; the Checkerspot LP, a decorative record cast by the company’s in-house design team; Algae Earrings by Mitchell Heinrich; Shells and More, a series of chiselled sculptures evocative of natural objects found in the ocean; Skateboard Wheels; and Toyota Shift Knob, which serves as replacement for the aging shift knob in the 1987 Toyota 4Runner.
Another innovator, Ryan Rutherford, who sculpted Meet Logan in the visage designed by toy maker Gary Ham, shares, “The sustainable positioning is the meaningful hook that gets you to pay attention but the work that went into the packaging and user experience is the real winner for me...The soft bag gives you the ability to premix your material without even opening it and the spouts provide precision control when pouring. This solution also uses less packaging material, further supporting the sustainable positioning of Checkerspot.”
One of the many contemporary issues that arise as a result of the extant need for creating sustainable and renewable materials and objects, is the lack of accessibility of such materials. The processes that are typically delineated as the means to acquire the final product or even the raw material are tedious, and hence, serves as a deterrent in their employment at a larger scale. Checkerspot’s Pollinator™ Kit is an attempt at addressing this issue. Since the usage of the renewable polyurethane resin in the kit is simple, both for novices and more experienced creatives, it encourages its utilisation and experimentation across a larger populace.
“Sustainability should be for everyone,” reads the didact for the Pollinator™ Kit. “Manufacturers of raw materials can often overlook these small but powerful groups, opting instead to bring their materials to market via well-known consumer brands. This strategy pigeonholes renewables, limits the scope of how they can be used and consequently narrows the impact they can have. With the Pollinator Kit, our renewable polyurethanes are now accessible to people of all creative types,” reads the intent statement of the kit.
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