photo by Nobuyuki Hayashi
James Dyson, the British billionaire entrepreneur who brought us bagless vacuum cleaners and superfast Airblade hand driers, knows a good invention when he sees one – even if the origins might be a tad “fishy.”
And so it happens that this year’s international winner of the James Dyson Award is a 23-year-old graduate of England’s University of Sussex. The winner, Lucy Hughes, developed a replacement for clear plastic film from a waste product that most of us would refer to as fish slime.
Rather than “fish slime film,” Hughes calls her invention MarinaTex, which sounds a whale of a lot better. (No offense to marine mammals – I just couldn’t resist.) The University of Sussex is located in the seaside town of Brighton, allowing Hughes to partner with a local fish processing plant. Hughes experimented with the plant’s detritus to develop a translucent, flexible material made mainly from fish skins and scales, with some binding agents derived from crustacean shells and algae. MarinaTex can be used as a substitute in many applications for low-density polyethylene (LDPE), a plastic that takes centuries to decompose. Hughes says her product can biodegrade harmlessly in four to six weeks in a nonpolluting compost bin. Unlike many existing bioplastics, MarinaTex does not need industrial processing to break down.
LDPE is often used in packaging material and plastic bags. It is probably what your dry cleaner uses to wrap your freshly laundered garments. Admittedly, it may sound a bit strange to wrap your fresh clothes in a product derived from fish waste. Then again, there is nothing especially clean about the crude oil that is the source of some ethylene. (The rest comes mainly from natural gas.) The secret, in the case of both LDPE and MarinaTex, is all in the processing.
Dyson famously experimented with more than 5,000 variants before he perfected his eponymous vacuum cleaner in the 1980s. British manufacturers refused to produce his invention because it could have ruined the market for the replacement bags used in conventional vacuums. So Dyson set up his own company to manufacture the bagless vacuums instead, launching the product first in Japan. Many consumers on both sides of the pond have since become acquainted with Dyson’s cleverly engineered products, in part through some equally cleverly engineered television commercials.
Dyson personally chooses the annual winner of the award issued by the James Dyson Foundation. It is not a huge sum of money – about $35,000 for Hughes, plus about $5,500 for her school, where she conducted much of her research in her final year – but the prestige and attention can help attract the backing winners like Hughes need to protect and commercialize an invention. Hughes has said she hopes to secure government grants to further develop MarinaTex and eventually get it into the hands of consumers.
According to a posting on the Dyson foundation’s website, Hughes was inspired in her research after hearing that by 2050, the weight of plastic in the world’s oceans may exceed the weight of the fish in those oceans. I don’t think this is an exaggeration. I have a beach home and I have seen what washes up after a big storm; it isn’t pretty.
I take comfort in knowing that talent, creativity, intelligence and commitment can solve even problems as big as an ocean that vomits plastic waste after a hurricane. And if some MarinaTex happens to make it into the water instead of a composting bin, it will just be fish slime returning to its point of origin.