In jewellery, innovation encompasses using non-traditional materials to create pieces that are non-standard, modern and capable of expanding the limits of expression of jewellery. This field of new possibilities is expanding ever more, and a huge variety of materials such as plastic, fabrics, ceramics or paper, among many others, are already being used. For these kinds of materials, it is also appropriate to consider the social and environmental impacts arising from their origin and handling, in order to then look for the most sustainable options.

Bioplastics as a sustainable jewellery option

Alternative materials have always been a feature in the history of jewellery and, although it is true that bioplastics played a role in jewellery long before the emergence of synthetic plastics, it was not until the advent of digital manufacturing and the growing interest in using new sustainable materials that they have regained prominence.

But what is bioplastic?

Bioplastic is a kind of plastic that, unlike synthetic plastic, which comes from finite fossil resources such as petroleum, is made from renewable natural sources, such as wheat starch or potato starch, among many others. In most cases, bioplastics are also biodegradable; this means that after they have been used, under certain environmental conditions and in contact with micro-organisms, they break down into nutrients that are returned to the soil.

However, it is worth noting that not all bioplastics are biodegradable. This is true of polyethylene derived from sugar cane and some non-toxic resins which, despite being created from renewable natural resources, are not recyclable or biodegradable. It is therefore crucial to have an understanding of the properties of each bioplastic, whether it is recyclable or biodegradable, and the conditions necessary for it to decompose once it has been discarded. For instance, when a bioplastic is compostable, it means that, under the conditions of a composting plant, it will decompose into nutrients over a short time period, but if the same plastic is discarded in an inappropriate environment, other than a composting plant, it is highly likely that it will end up as a waste product that takes decades to decompose.

Exploring, handling and experimenting with materials are intrinsic processes in craftspeople and jewellery artists who strive for a language of their own in their creations. Innovating with a technique, achieving an effect that accurately represents a concept that you want to convey, or simply achieving a certain aesthetic quality featuring a texture that fits with your own style are processes that do not have to take place outside of sustainability criteria.

Today’s climate crisis has led us to review and be aware of how we use the materials we use and the processes for handling them; contributing to cutting our carbon footprint by choosing local materials, curbing water consumption or incorporating circularity into our designs are some of the decisions we can take to improve our production process.

Though the properties vary greatly depending on the kind of bioplastic, most offer many possibilities for experimentation, whether in a more industrially manufactured version such as the polylactic acid filament used in 3D printers (PLA) or in a version of bioplastics manufactured or “cooked” in a more artisanal way using ingredients found in the cupboard at home or in any supermarket: starches, gelatine or agar-agar, among others.

The many options for colour, shape and texture, and the possibilities that arise from using it as a binder when combined with other organic materials (fruit skins, coffee grounds, natural pigments, etc.), make it a highly versatile material and an inexhaustible source of possibilities that, with just a few tools and a wealth of imagination, artists, artisans and jewellery designers can bring to their designs and contribute to changing the path towards circularity and sustainability.

Photo and text: Paula Waters