For vacationers heading to the beach this summer, algae—the toxic red and blue-green types, in particular—is the dreaded stuff threatening to upend the best of plans. But for those in the biofuel and biomaterials industries, algae and algae-extracted compounds are literally the new pots of gold at the end of the rainbow.

In fact, the first algae-derived black ink was created 10 years ago. It was the brainchild of two PhD students in molecular biology who were researching biofuels and bioproducts at Colorado State University. They went on to form Living Ink Technologies, which produces Algae Black, an eco-friendly alternative to the petroleum-derived pigment carbon black.

Biodegradable and renewable, algae-based inks are reputed to be the most sustainable, with zero VOCs. Algae grows abundantly in all types of natural bodies of water, potable and not potable, fresh and salt, as well as on nonarable land. Fast-growing algae (a nod to productivity here) requires only carbon dioxide, sunlight, and water, so these photosynthetic organisms are naturally free of fertilizers and herbicides while releasing oxygen back into the environment. Contrast these organisms with soybeans, from which soy-based inks, another eco-friendly and green alternative, are made: soybean farming requires a massive amount of arable land (read: deforestation and topsoil erosion) and makes high demands on water and agrochemical resources, and high-yielding seeds are mostly genetically modified with herbicide-resistant genes.

Supposedly, bio-based alternatives can be washed down the drain, since they are biodegradable and compostable. But this is not exactly true. To give us the ability to print in all the shades of the rainbow, colored pigments—which are derived from inorganic compounds, such as heavy metals—are added to the inks. These include cadmium (for reds and yellows), chromium (for yellows, greens, and oranges), and molybdenum (for striking oranges). So, true biodegradable and VOC-free algae inks are available only in different shades of black. By the way, nearly 90% of daily newspapers in the U.S. are printed using colored soy inks. In the meantime, with Future Market Insights predicting the eco-friendly inks market to grow from $4.3 billion in 2022 to $7.5 billion by 2032, you can bet that the quest for greener inks is just starting to get serious.

But the printing process does not solely involve inks, eco-friendly or not. Paper is a major component, and here the search for eco-alternatives gets even more creative (and crazier), ranging from tree-free paper (using abaca, flax, hemp, kenaf, and sisal, for instance) to rock paper made of ground stone and nontoxic resin. The pulp and its source, and even the mills themselves, go a long way in determining a paper’s “green” credentials. After all, deforestation and the generation of toxic waste during the pulping process are not by any means green or friendly.

Which brings us to grass paper. And why not? After all, grass is everywhere. German company Creapaper, for instance, is using grass, or sun-dried hay, to be exact, to produce pulp that can be used by mills to create paper and cardboard. While the pulp mixture is about 30% grass and 70% wood, it is still a great step toward saving some trees. The Swiss Mushroom Producers Association has also developed grass-paper trays to pack its organic produce, with the process said to produce 30% fewer carbon emissions than normal paper and paperboard processes.

In the Philippines, invasive cogon grass, with its hard stalks and saw-toothed leaves, has been turned into handmade paper products. Across the South China Sea, a different type of grass is being harvested to replace plastic straws. Known locally as “co bang,” the gray sedge grass that grows around the Mekong Delta in Vietnam is washed and cut into straw-sized tubes that are sold fresh or dried.

Speaking of compostable plastics, algae-extracted ingredients—agar, alginate, carrageenan, and hydrocolloids, for instance—are being used to create products that can also withstand high temperatures. Currently, biomaterials companies are focusing in on seaweed, which has well over 12,000 species but only 30 that are commercially cultivated, to solve the world’s addiction to single-use plastics.

So the next time you spy some unassuming algae or grass, including those deadly and pervasive types, show them some respect. They may just be the very solutions we seek to become more environmentally friendly and sustainable.

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