The problem: Each of us ingests about 5 mg of microplastics every week.

The solution: Replace microplastics with natural organic materials.

Clothing, tire wear particles, artificial turf, cosmetics, even tea bags – countless items contain microplastics. That’s why researchers are now finding microplastics in all sorts of places where they don’t belong – in our oceans, our drinking water, our food, our blood. According to WWF, each of us ingests about 5 mg of microplastics every week.

Joana Gil and Wienke Reynolds, two young material researchers from the Hamburg University of Technology (TUHH), were sure there must be alternatives. Joana Gil, a bioengineer, is originally from Mexico, where she worked as a product developer for natural cosmetics. The job sparked her interest in natural raw materials. For her doctoral thesis at TUUH, she took a close look at lignin, and researched whether the bioresource could be a good substitute for plastic.

Lignin (from the Latin lignum, “wood”) is the natural “glue” in plants and trees that gives strength to stems, leaves and trunks. “Lignin is usually an industrial waste material, an organic raw material derived from wood or straw,” Gil explains. In October, the lively native Mexican founded the startup Lignopure with Wienke Reynolds and support from the City of Hamburg.

Lignopure is currently focused on developing ingredients for cosmetic applications, more specifically, sunscreens, sun care and scrub formulations. Lignin itself absorbs UV light, and it’s considered a free radical scavenger to boot; and as a replacement for microplastics in cosmetics, lignin is 70 percent cheaper than other bio-alternatives. “Microbeads made from lignin can replace microplastics in exfoliating scrubs or shower gel,” says Gil, who promptly presents a tube with small brown lignin beads floating in it. “This is 100 percent [bio]degradable; the beads simply dissolve in water over time.” Considering that some 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in the oceans every year, where microplastics accumulate in plankton and fish, a more sustainable alternative could make a real difference.

Lignopure holds several patents, one being the manufacturing of lignin microparticles. “We’ve developed a lignin microparticle production process that is less energy-intensive than in the industry, optimizes the consistency, and blends it with other biomaterials depending on where it’s going to be used.” Lignopure also has a patent for lignin deodorization, which is helpful for the applications that Lignopure has in its sights.

Joana Gil also has many ideas about all that could be made with lignin, so perhaps the fun will soon turn into action, and we’ll soon be able to buy sustainable alternatives made from lignin instead of petroleum.

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