The history of humanity can be summarized in different periods dominated by the use of a new material bringing a new paradigm and a revolution in engineering, becoming in a short time the engine of development of that historical period. The ages of stone, bronze and iron are clear examples of how certain materials have transformed society and its economy. Nowadays the equivalent to these materials is plastic. Driven initially by a continuous demand from the WWII, the production of plastic began a vertiginous development, finally surpassing in production to all the rest of materials used outside the field of construction in the decade of the 60s.
The first voices of alarm about the impact of plastic on the environment occurred also in the 60s, with the first observations of the accumulation of plastic waste in nests of seabirds. While these early studies were anecdotal and remote for most, today virtually no one is unaware of a problem in continuous growth. We are in a difficult situation; as a society we have developed a greater awareness of the impact of our actions on the environment in general, and the impact of plastic in particular. Moreover, unlike other environmental problems, the problem of plastic is indisputably anthropogenic and easily observable. However, the production of plastic it is accelerating. If in the 50s, we were producing half a million tons of plastic a year, now we are close to the five hundred million tons. At the current rate in 2050 we will double that amount, requiring one fifth of the world's oil production to produce plastic.
The apparent failure to produce feasible solutions, both by scientists and legislators, is mainly because the solutions being considered implicitly assume that humanity has reached a kind of technology summit with the invention of plastic and its methods of manufacturing. As legislators we fail because, in the absence of alternatives, we can only limit very specific uses of plastic. As scientists we are failing because we are trying to find materials that replace plastic to make objects that have been designed to be made with plastic. Moreover, not only the objects, in our search for solutions we also impose the mode of manufacture of the plastic and that is the basis of our industrial system. We mistakenly assume that necessity is the motor of development, but the question we should be asking ourselves is not how can we change an economy and society molded around plastic to get rid of our addiction to it. The question should be: What comes after the plastic and what kind of society will it bring?
In this talk we will explore the role that biomaterials will play in the future of manufacturing and the emergence of new economic models, giving rise to what we have called "the biomaterial age". The role of bio-inspired engineering, 3D printing, or new models of organic waste processing will be covered as key pieces in this transition.