Cellulose is the most pervasive natural polymer on the planet. As the primary structural material in plants, it is essentially a long chain of connected sugars. We encounter cellulose in consumer goods such as textiles and wood pulp, in the form of paper. However, the Australian company Zeoform has figured out how to turn the soft, fibrous material into a hard plastic.
Made from nothing but cellulose fibers and water, Zeoform is promoted by its namesake company as “the world’s new plastic”—a nontoxic, compostable, and environmentally favorable alternative to petroleum-based plastics. The tagline is not to suggest that Zeoform may someday usurp its fossil fuel–derived counterpart. Rather, it’s intended to embody the broader meaning of plastic—namely, a substance that can be shaped and molded.
Sourced from the fibers of recycled waste paper, Zeoform exhibits characteristics of plastic and wood. It can be spray-molded, compression-molded, pressed, poured, and sculpted like plastic. After it dries, it can be sanded, routed, engraved, and laser-cut like wood. At its prototyping facility in New South Wales, the company employs its patented methods of steam explosion and enzymatic processing to transform waste paper into pulp, and then into furniture, housewares, jewelry, industrial parts, musical instruments, and building cladding. According to CEO Alf Wheeler, Zeoform derives its strength and durability from “a combination of fiber entanglement and hydroxyl bonding.” Like wood, it requires added protection from the elements; otherwise, it will biodegrade within a year or so.
Zeoform faces steep competition from conventional plastics, which are inexpensive and ubiquitous commodities. The company has plans to build a manufacturing and education center, but an initial fundraising effort through the crowdsourcing website Indiegogo yielded only 5 percent of its $1 million goal. The tepid public response may be due to the material’s novelty and a lack of demonstrated performance: The notion of a biodegradable chair will take a cultural readjustment. Nevertheless, Zeoform may transform our perception of plastic as an artificial and environmentally persistent compound to a biocompatible substance with significant ecological benefit.
Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.
Editors' Note: This article has been updated from its original publication, on Oct. 29, to reflect a more comprehensive version published in the December issue of ARCHITECT.