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Op-Ed: Evolving Beyond Plastics

April 2, 2024
Can some of the world’s most recent technological innovations transform one of the world’s oldest industries?

We wanted to spotlight the advancements in industrial biotechnology that I believe can potentially close the gap between what the furniture industry needs in material solutions to overcome our reliance on plastics and to operate in a more circular economy. The sector is producing new proteins, enzymes, carbohydrates, polymers and chemicals that can begin to replace many of the petroleum-based chemicals that serve as the base for the plastics that still dominate our world. But to understand what this means for our future, let’s first look back (way back) to see how we reached this point as a society. 

Material Evolution

Archaeological research has shown that people began creating their own furniture around 30,000 years ago. Most of this early rudimentary furniture was created using natural materials such as wood, stone and bone for about 20,000 years—materials that were readily available to the early, enterprising, humans that would fine tune their skills and tools over several thousand years. This consistent practice gave rise to more creative and intricate furniture products ranging from village life utility pieces to palace adornments. Then we reach the ages where metals and metal alloys are being developed and introduced as construction materials. This was one of the first innovations to disrupt the already ancient practice of building furniture.

Fast forward a few thousand years from the Metal ages to the industrial revolution, where the discovery of oil and advanced refining techniques are about to change not just the furniture industry, but the world. This oil boom transforms everything and restructures economies. With the accelerating rate of technological innovation fueled by petroleum and its byproducts, a rift begins to appear between how we, people, have evolved along with the environment to now having a sense of separation from it. No longer are we a part of the larger governing systems of the world, because we can now create our own systems. I’ll get back to this thought in a bit. 

In the late 1800s and early 1900s the first synthetic plastics were invented using byproducts from the oil industry. For the first time in history, humans were free from the constraints imposed by the scarcity of natural resources. We could now create our own materials. In fact, plastics were originally viewed as a way to protect and preserve the environment from our extractive needs. With its widespread utility, plastic was a material for the future and WWII exponentially expanded the plastics industry. The rest, as is said, is history and we find ourselves where we are today.

A Change of Heart

The optimism around plastic that was widespread only 7-8 decades ago has faded amongst the realization that we now live in a world covered with plastic. From enormous ocean gyres, to landfills, to microscopic plastic pollutants in our soils and groundwater; we have managed to incorporate our synthetic materials into a world, along with all of its organisms, that has not evolved in a way to cope with them. Some of these are toxic; some mimic natural hormones that disrupt human and animal health; some will persist for millennia, not to mention the harmful effects of some production methods.

Beginning in the ‘80s, we started to realize that plastic waste was a problem. Recycling was offered as a solution by the plastics industry and it’s still part of the circularity discussion over 40 years later—even though we know that it doesn’t work as originally advertised. I’m not saying that it couldn’t with the proper infrastructure, only that it currently doesn’t. 

Within the furniture industry alone we are sending approximately 12 million tons of furniture to the landfill annually. Additionally, buy-back-take-back programs, or products made from ocean plastic, are seen as part of the solution. I agree that they are part of the solution but certainly not a solution in and of themselves. Even if we were able to recycle every bit of plastic on earth then we are only delaying the inevitable. Eventually, those petroleum-based plastics will lose the qualities that make them useful to us and they will find their way back into our environment.

Next Generation

How do we reach circularity? I believe that the first step is to not view circularity from within any given industry. Any given industry is a system that we created and operate separate from our predominant world systems or cycles. Let’s take a step back to elementary science. I’m referring to our water cycle, nutrient cycle, carbon cycle, nitrogen cycle, and so on. We need to operate within the entire system. 

And one way to get there is through bio-based materials.

The great news is that we don’t have to start making furniture from only wood, stone and bone again. Industrial biotechnology is poised to be the next revolution in material innovation, as the new proteins, enzymes, carbohydrates, polymers and chemicals it’s producing are mostly bio-based and degradable into natural components that fit within the world’s nutrient cycle. These novel materials are “grown” through fermentation processes using microbes, fungi or animal cells along with supplemented bio-based feedstocks that generally take the form of waste products from other industries such as agriculture. Some estimate that the economic opportunity for bio-based products in manufacturing industries could range anywhere from $7.5 trillion to $30 trillion, in terms of value, by the end of this decade. 

There are not only advancements in fermentation techniques and microbe discoveries, but also in synthetic biology that are spurring this expected growth. Synthetic biology involves redesigning organisms for useful purposes by engineering them to have new abilities. We are now in the age where manipulation of genetic codes (the A,T,C, or Gs in a DNA structure) is not only possible, but ongoing. Imagine a species of yeast that naturally ferments sugar into alcohol. With some slight adjustments to its genetic code, that same yeast may now be able to ferment that same sugar into a building block for a bioplastic with superior characteristics to its petroleum counterpart. 

There have been some recent announcements regarding investments into this sector. In the fall of 2022 a White House Executive Order was signed to launch a National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative. The intent is to accelerate biotechnology innovation and grow America’s bioeconomy across multiple industries. A driving factor cited in the announcement was “Global industry is on the cusp of an industrial revolution powered by biotechnology.” Over $2 billion is to be invested within the next five years to grow biomanufacturing capacity, expand market opportunities, drive R&D, accelerate workforce training, create infrastructure, and foster innovation. This is all to be distributed through multiple government agencies including, but not limited to, the U.S.’ Dept. of Defense, USDA, Dept. of Energy, Dept. of Commerce, and Dept. of Health and Human Services.  

In February the European Association for Bioindustries released a position paper entitled “EC Initiative on Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing: Principles for an Impactful Europe.” Biotechnology is listed as one of four critical technologies for the future of European industry. Not only will it help the EU economy grow and provide new jobs, it will also support sustainable development, public health, and environmental protection. More information regarding this initiative and specific investments is expected through 2024. 

There are also billions of investment dollars coming from public and private corporations, venture capital, accelerators, angel investors, partnerships and acquisitions. Needless to say, it seems there is a global technology and market race underway within the industry. When the dust settles, the materials we use to construct our buildings, and the furniture that goes in them, may look very different. You may just need a chemical analysis to see it.


The time frame for any type of major impact to the furniture industry is hard to estimate. I’d like to think it will happen sooner rather than later, but only time will tell. Others are certainly being impacted already: Impossible Foods (along with about 70 other startups) are currently producing meat alternatives using biotechnology. Rio Tinto (a mining company) is using bioleaching to help extract ore. Modern Meadow is using engineered yeast to produce collagen for leather alternatives. Genomatica ferments sugars in plants to make a key intermediate for making Nylon 6, and Aquafil converts their ingredient into Nylon 6 polymer chips and has plans for a 50X expansion over the next 10 years. Bolt Threads grows mycelium to produce leather alternatives and uses precision fermentation to produce spider silk proteins for silk alternatives. Their target is the fashion industry and they’re collaborating with some major players like Adidas, Kering, Lululemon and Stella McCartney. These are just a few examples of organizations that are currently employing biotechnology to replace petroleum based or otherwise harmful materials. 

Over the last several decades the possibilities for petroleum-based chemicals and compounds seemed endless. I believe the same can be said of these “new” chemicals and compounds being created through biotechnology and biomanufacturing. After all, if we are working within the world’s systems and with natural products/processes then we have the benefit of billions of years of research and development. Nature has a way of showing us what works if we’re willing to take a look. Large oil companies and all of the byproducts that come from oil production are not going to lead us to a healthier and more sustainable future. It may not be the only way, but one way to get there is by partnering with some of earth’s smallest and most basic organisms— our yeasts, algae, fungi and bacteria. These are the building blocks for bio-based and circular economies.  

It is only my opinion (or maybe my hope) that biomanufacturing will soon be an integral part of our supply chains. This will result in a major impact to our overall sustainability, giving the industry an opportunity to become regenerative and to leave our linear ways behind us. So, can biotechnology transform the furniture industry? 

I believe the possibility exists.

About the Author

Jarod Brames

Jarod Brames is the director of sustainability at OFS.

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