Food waste comprises the largest portion of solid waste in the world. Research shows its different forms have the potential for broad material applications that would keep them out of landfills. Developing waste-based processes and products can change how we view and value garbage.
SEAD is innovative packaging for heirloom seeds made of chitin, a polymer derived from the shell byproducts of the seafood processing industry. It facilitates the distribution and cultivation of heirloom plants from seed to soil. The package is completely biodegradable and offers both physical and agricultural benefits. SEAD is made up of pods that each contain heirloom seed and is designed so each pod can be broken off and planted along with the seed it contains. The rest of the seeds remain sealed and protected for storage.
For small scale gardeners and at-home growers who are not equipped with the knowledge and tools of efficient agriculture producers, SEAD provides easy advantages and benefits that can improve cultivation results. It can also offset the need to purchase supplementary fertilizers and nutrients.
SEAD is produced for use with heirloom species because they hold an important role in biodiverse and sustainable food futures as far as grown food is concerned. Unlike the engineered and hybridized products of large-scale agriculture, heirloom plants are genetically diverse and can be grown from seeds and their seeds can be harvested and grown again. Genetic diversity helps individual species adjust to new conditions, diseases and pests, and can aid ecosystems in adapting to a changing environment or severe conditions like drought or flooding.
Beyond its use in sustainable seed packaging, SEAD is a case study that treats waste as an alternative feedstock, inviting further investigation into applications for chitin and other waste materials.
Inside SEADSEAD kernels of corn individually stored in pods@842photo
SEAD and Chitin Flake@842photo
SEAD in useA seed-containing pod being broken off just before planting.@842photo
SEAD LabelingSEAD is labeled in a non-additive process with laser engraving. No inks or dyes required.@842photo
SEAD Press MoldSEAD's mold was custom milled for use in a hydraulic heat press@842photo
Inside SEADA close-up showing how seeds store inside the package@842photo
SEAD is born of the search for useful applications of waste-based material. As an industrial designer with a desire to solve problems through making, I seek responsible strategies that engage with unconventional, healthy materials and align them with uses that increase their value and make positive impacts on product life cycles.
In the United States, food waste constitutes around 24% of landfills. 30% of food waste occurs at commercial and industrial levels. Byproducts like peels, trimmings, stems, shells, and seeds can account for more than 50% of food items. Plentiful and consistent sources like these offer the most material opportunity within the garbage realm.
Material Experimentation and Properties
I initially explored several food waste products: making composites with ground nut shells, plant fibers, and seashells. Existing methods of processing material into composites guided my physical experimentation. I primarily used heat and pressure similar to that used for MDF and particle board manufacturing. This showed promising results, the best being chitin flakes, an organic polymer found in crustacean shells, insect exoskeletons, and certain classes of fungi.
As a biopolymer, chitin has a broad range of useful physical properties including insolubility(in its pure state), solubility(as chitosan), high heat tolerance, durability, and crystallinity. When pressed at 600 psi and 400°F the chitin flake forms a smooth, mono-material composite without any additional binders or adhesives. In its derivative form, chitosan, can be made into an organic gel/glue-like mixture that dries into a thin film not dissimilar to plastic wrap.
Seafood is the most traded food commodity in the world. Around 7-9 million tons of waste shells are produced by the industry every year. Shells are up to 60% of the animal mass and up to 40% of a shell consists of chitin, the second-most abundant organic polymer in the world after cellulose.
While current methods of chitin extraction from shell involve costly and harmfully wasteful chemical processing, there have been recent discoveries around healthier methods. Lacto-fermentation processes have been used to successfully separate chitin in labs. This employs bacteria to consume all the protein and minerals in shells leaving behind a relatively pure form of chitin. It is a completely organic process that uses fruit and other agro-waste to initiate fermentation. This method can align with SEAD's environmental goals.
Chitin and its derivatives offer agricultural benefits improving seed germination and crop cultivation. It is a bio-stimulant that can increase growth, prevent nutrient leaching, and increase crop yield. It improves plant defense responses that protect against threatening pests and pathogens. It is also a natural anti-transpirant that provides better water retention in poor moisture conditions.
This research pushed me to apply my pressed chitin material samples for use in agriculture. As a biodegradable and nutritive material, the composites can be effectively used to contain seeds and be planted along with them. Thus I was led to plantable seed packaging, an application that so simply solves the product end-of-life question. From here I thought about a form that could allow the package to be used up gradually as the seeds themselves are.
Taking a cue from chocolate bars, I developed the idea of a break-off pod package. The multi-pod form invites the user to break off pieces as needed. The arrangement and shape of pods are meant to evoke a natural, organic feel that conjures images of a flower or the sun. Drawing from the ways seeds are naturally stored in their fruiting bodies, the pattern was directly inspired by the cross-section of okra, which has seeds arranged concentrically and radiating outward.
The material itself has a satisfying feel in the hands when broken. The untreated composite surface shows off the organic material from which it's made and invites further inspection and interaction.
Chitin is formed into SEAD packaging in a three-step heat-pressing process.
First loose chitin flake is loaded into a custom mold. Then it is heat pressed at 600 psi and 400°F to produce a pod-containing upper half. This is repeated but without the custom mold, producing a flat-bottom half. Seeds are placed between the two halves along with a thin layer of chitosan-based glue and the package is sealed in a third and final pressing.
Labeling is laser engraved on the front and back. This is not an additive step, avoiding the need for any inks or dyes. Repeated seed labels are applied so the variety can always be identified as parts of the package are broken off and used.
Looking to avoid further extraction of the Earth's resources and avoid generating new waste, SEAD takes advantage of an existing waste stream and redirects it into a circular loop. The waste is degraded in soil offering nutrients and protection to cultivated plants that can be continually grown, harvested, and propagated.
SEAD is produced for use with heirloom species because they hold an important role in biodiverse and sustainable food futures as far as grown food is concerned. Unlike the engineered and hybridized products of large-scale agriculture, heirloom plants are genetically diverse and can be grown from seeds and their seeds can be harvested and grown again. Genetic diversity helps individual species adjust to new conditions, diseases and pests, and can aid ecosystems in adapting to a changing environment or severe conditions like drought or floods.
Heirloom varieties are rooted in indigenous and local communities that first developed, protected, and propagated them. SEAD is dedicated to supporting local and indigenous communities in their efforts to protect bio-cultural diversity and food sovereignty through seed preservation and rematriation projects. Working in partnership with these groups can strengthen and restore communities that have been marginalized or in decline.