On growing fully biodegradable organic materials out of food waste, by Elise Elsacker

The growing problem of food waste has made it increasingly imperative to find sustainable solutions for its reduction. This urgency has been at the core of the research projects of Elise Elsacker (1988), an architect and recently-enrolled PhD-researcher at the VUB’s Architectural Engineering Lab. She co-founded Magma Nova, an agency helping designers and companies work with bio-fabricated rather than extracted materials, who are adamant that fully biodegradable materials could be the creative, long-term answer for the future.

All visuals provided by Jasper van der Linden (c).

The whole adventure started almost three years ago. At the time, I took it upon myself to live without waste and, even though everybody believed I wouldn’t make it, I developed a true obsession for it. At first, the challenge was actually quite playful to me but the more I dived into it, the more I realised how urgent the issue was as it touched every aspect of our lives. I used to work as an architect, and because of my peculiar attention to materials, I rather naturally looked into ways of combining both. I therefore began looking into developing my own materials, like plastic, but with very little resources, which led me to explore the possibilities of using food waste to create plastic from orange or onion peels. Because of their rigidity, it’s easy to transform them into some sort of leather, which you can achieve by dehydrating the peels. A few experiments later, I discovered that mushrooms too, and mycelium in particular, were another interesting source to explore. Even though I was really just starting off in the field, I got hooked very quickly because I didn’t know anything about biology. You have to be very strict when working with organic substances, which are living organisms after all and can be quite unstable.

All the resources we use to build things are being extracted and will soon be drained and there is today real urgency in finding long-term solutions like recycling every ton of waste we create or finding ways to invent new materials.

In this sense, I teamed up with Winnie Poncelet, a bioengineer who’s in charge of a bio-hacking space in Ghent, to do some more experiments and really engage with the interdisciplinary potential that underlines our work. At some point, we realised our research had a huge potential of investigation and that it was time to really invest ourselves fully into it, which led to the creation of our agency, Magma Nova, as well as to my enrolment in a PhD degree that I started last January. Magma Nova’s mission is to guide society to trade materials that are extracted for bio-fabrications. We help designers and companies that want to produce or use these materials make the shift through research, workshops and consulting. I must say, I feel very excited to be part of this process because I realised how innovative it is and how it could be a real game-changer in terms of how we manage waste on a global scale. All the resources we use to build things are being extracted and will soon be drained and there is today real urgency in finding long-term solutions like recycling every ton of waste we create or finding ways to invent new materials. Extracted resources represent a huge logistical process that costs us time and money, but also damage the environment. On the other hand, growing fully biodegradable organic materials out of food waste streams could simplify all the processes by relocating the production and preventing our planet from being harmed any more than it already is.

magmanova.com