Protolabs helps sustainable plastic innovators Lyfecycle join the race for climate awareness at Extreme E
Polymateria are British innovators and inventors of the world’s first self-destructing plastic technology. The company, which has been lauded by Prince Charles for their work in tackling plastic pollution, approached Protolabs for digital manufacturing support in raising awareness of the issue and their ground-breaking technology that could ultimately help solve it.
Inspired by nature and powered by science, Lyfecycle’s ‘Reach for Change’ bracelet features one-of-a-kind sustainable beads repurposed from used Lyfecycle cups, an adjustable cord from recovered plastic bottles and a recycled fair trade silver emblem. All bracelets come with educational facts about plastic pollution and the steps we can adopt to help us to lower our environmental impact.
Discovered by British innovators Polymateria based at Imperial College in London, Lyfecycle’s self-destructing plastic technology creates packaging that looks and feels indistinguishable from conventional plastic. It is durable, stable and can be recycled with other plastic items. After its service life, if a Lyfecycle product leaks into the environment, factors such as heat, sun, moisture and air will break down the material, turning it into earth-friendly wax and will fully biodegrade within 2 years.
Protolabs supported the project through their world-leading plastic injection moulding service. They rapidly moulded parts (partially from customer-supplied repurposed plastic) for the bracelets that were then used for publicity at the world-renowned Extreme E Artic X-Prix race.
Our over-use of convenient single-use plastic products combined with a ‘throw-away’ culture has created a crisis for the environment on a global scale. It's believed that there are more than five trillion pieces of plastic in the world's oceans, which could be there for hundreds of years. And the problem is worsening – each year, over 380 million tonnes of plastic is produced and up to 50% of that is single-use plastic that is swiftly discarded1.
The central problem is that so much of manufactured plastic is only single-use, and that most of it is not biodegradable. Polyethylene (PE), one of the most used polyolefins, can take 100 years to degrade by just 0.5%. When they do eventually degrade, these plastics ‘shatter’ - the crystalline structure of the plastic simply breaking into smaller pieces - and thus litter our environment with microplastic waste.
|At A Glance
Manufacture parts for a bracelet designed to raise awareness and provoke global change in response to the plastic pollution issue.
Innovative company Polymateria approached Protolabs to rapidly injection mould parts for the bracelet using customer supplied repurposed plastic, alongside colour and additional polymer from Protolabs.
Working together and with guidance from Protolabs’ expert support team, parts were rapidly manufactured in time for the world renowned Extreme E Artic X-Prix race in Greenland where a prototype of the Reach for Change bracelet was launched. This was a key ambition to support publicity around plastic pollution and the pioneering Lyfecycle technology that could ultimately help solve it.
By contrast, products made with Lyfecycle will return to nature, leaving no toxins or microplastics behind within only two years. The only by-products from the fully biodegraded Lyfecycle products are CO2, biomass and water.
Lyfecycle’s mission is to stop 450 million tonnes of plastic from reaching the oceans by 2040. They seek to harness their unique technology to offer an alternative route for the 32% of plastic that escapes the circular economy and ends up in the natural environment.
As part of their campaign to raise greater awareness around the urgent need to tackle plastic pollution and create new uses for unwanted plastic products, Lyfecycle approached Protolabs to urgently help in the creation of their ‘Reach for Change’ bracelet.
“We wanted to create a ‘Seeing is Believing’ tangible user experience. Because when you talk about science and chemical reactions in plastic, it can turn people off. So we wanted to create an aesthetically-pleasing, high-end looking product that people can wear,” explains Lyfecycle’s Head of Brand Activation, Liepa Olsauskaite. “Wearing the bracelet is a constant reminder that it’s not only possible to recycle plastic items; you can recover them and use them to create something beautiful. That’s how the Reach for Change bracelet came about.”
However, the Lyfecycle team needed to create the bracelets as quickly as possible. The concept of the bracelet was in collaboration with plant-based burger chain Neat Burger and Extreme E, the electric off-road racing series. It was vital that the Reach for Change bracelet was launched at Extreme E’s Artic X-Prix race in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland in August 2021 where high-profile race attendees could be gifted the bracelets and asked to get involved in sharing their environmental message.
Lyfecycle’s recyclable, self-destructing and climate-friendly cups are used and promoted across all Extreme E events. Launched in 2019, Extreme E is an international net-zero off-road racing series where electric SUV’s race in a number of remote parts of the world that have been affected by climate change, such as the Saudi Arabian desert or the Arctic. The racing locations are chosen to raise awareness around environmental issues.
Although fairly recently launched, Extreme E is growing quickly. Attention in the series intensified with the news in September 2020 that Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton was creating his own Extreme E team, shortly followed by Former F1 champion Nico Rosberg who also entered a team. In January 2021, less than three months before the first season kicked off in Saudi Arabia in April, the competition ramped up a gear when former Formula One world champion Jenson Button stepped forward announcing his participation in the race, again with his own team. Moving from the Saudi Arabia Desert X-Prix to the Arctic X-Prix in Greenland and other locations that took in Senegal, Sardinia and the UK, Rosberg’s Rosberg X Racing team with drivers Molly Taylor and Johan Kristofferson were crowned the first Extreme E champions. This year, McLaren has joined Extreme E as a new team.
It was at the midway point of the 2021 season, the Artic X-Prix at Kangerlussuaq in Greenland, that Lyfecycle was to launch the Reach for Change bracelet. That was just one month away when the team turned to Protolabs for help. The race to get to the race was on.
“We had a 1 month timeframe, which is very tight especially as there were a number of steps that had to be navigated with the recycled element of the beads. Initially we were looking to 3D print the beads on the bracelet, but realised that we wouldn’t be able to achieve the effect that we wanted in such a short time frame. So we were looking for someone who could help us with injection moulding beads using recycled material supplied by us,” says Liepa.
“One of our suppliers said that if we needed speed, Protolabs were the people to contact. We approached Protolabs and explained what we needed and how quickly we needed it. Fortunately Protolabs said yes where others had said it couldn’t be done.”
Liepa Olsauskaite, Head of Brand Activation, Lyfecycle
Lyfecycle work with many partners to provide reusable, recyclable and fully biodegradable cups for various events, so they took the used cups and shredded them in their own laboratory. The cups were then sent to Lyfecycle’s partners at Imperial College who turned the small shredded plastic cup pieces into pellets. It was those pellets that were then supplied to Protolabs for use in the injection moulding process, alongside other polymers provided by Protolabs.
“Our timeframe was so tight that even if there was a half a day delay in getting the recycled material from the cups to Protolabs, then the whole project would have crumbled,” explains Liepa. “I couldn’t schedule a courier delivery to arrive in time before the end of the working day and it was incredibly stressful but our Protolabs Account Manager, stepped in and provided an above-and-beyond service, ensuring receipt of the material on time. I was so thankful for their support. She was really organised and on top of things and I knew I could call on her any time and she would support me.”
The Lyfecycle team collaborated with Protolabs’ Application Engineers to ensure they used as much of the recycled product as possible and designed a bead shape that used the material most efficiently. The end result was that, after colour and other polymers were added (as is usual in this type of project), a high percentage of the relevant bracelet parts were actually made from the recycled material, compared to other typically ‘recycled’ products.
With 2 beads injection moulded for each bracelet, a batch of just 200 bracelets was produced. The Reach for Change bracelet is not for sale but is used by the Lyfecycle team to carefully gift to individuals who are supporting their pioneering climate-friendly self-destructing plastic technology as well as politicians and social media influencers who help spread the word.
Working alongside Protolabs, Liepa and the Lyfecycle team were able to meet their deadline and the Reach for Change bracelets were successfully showcased at Extreme E’s Artic X-Prix in August 2021.
“Protolabs provided an amazing service. They were very, very responsive throughout the project and I felt I could rely on them and that they would go the extra mile where needed. They understood the intensity of how tight our deadline was and did everything to move as quickly as possible so that we’d achieve our goal. Not only did they do that, but they did it in a highly reassuring way, which is exactly what we needed!”
Liepa Olsauskaite, Head of Brand Activation, Lyfecycle
“Our concept was to create a smart, elegant and unisex bracelet that could be gifted and act as a constant reminder that a premium and attractive product can be created from what is considered waste material. Protolabs helped us to achieve that, even against the clock. Our Reach for Change bracelets have had great feedback. People are loving them.”
Following the bracelet’s launch, Lyfecycle – who are part of the Prince of Wales’ Sustainable Markets initiative, Terra Carta – were asked by Prince Charles to supply their self-destructing cups to the environmental summit, Cop 26. The event showcased many new technologies coming in to tackle climate change and was a landmark event for the Lyfecycle team as it helped place their innovative self-destructing plastic technology in the spotlight on a global stage. In gratitude for his support of their pioneering technology, Polymateria’s CEO Niall Dunne presented Prince Charles with a Reach for Change bracelet at the event.
From extreme sports around the globe to rubbing shoulders with royalty, it’s been an exciting year for Lyfecycle, so what do they have planned for the future?
“Going forward, it’s vital that along with spreading awareness of the potentials of our recyclable and biodegradable plastic, we encourage people to take action, no matter how small, and we’re looking at different ways that we can do that,” says Liepa. “We may look to do more jewellery or expand to household items like furniture. Whatever direction we go in, we would definitely look to partnering with Protolabs again as they have been such a pleasure to work with.”