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Your next sofa could be built out of potato

Joseph Flaig

A Chip[s] Board 'production line' (Credit: Chip[s] Board)
A Chip[s] Board 'production line' (Credit: Chip[s] Board)

A soggy pile of potato offcuts might not seem a likely birthplace for a “materials revolution”, but it has already begun – the trimmings and skins from our favourite vegetable could form furniture and fittings to help create a more positive, ‘circular’ approach to material use.

Last week, 23-year-old Rowan Minkley was named the UK’s most promising young engineering entrepreneur by the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Enterprise Hub. The co-founder and CEO of Chip[s] Board won the JC Gammon award worth £15,000 for his company’s innovative work converting potato into three sustainable new materials – Parblex, a bioplastic for fashion and interior design, and two particulate boards designed for furniture, fittings, temporary events and interior design.

Minkley and Chip[s] Board co-founder Robert Nicoll began work on the firm, workable wood substitutes after being shocked by the amount of disposable, non-recyclable waste while freelancing at commercial events including exhibitions, festivals and shop fits. They were “overwhelmed by the lack of value materials were given and sheer disposability they held after such short lifespans”, says the company’s website.

The short use of non-recyclable consumer products – flat-pack furniture has an average lifespan of 10 years, says Minkley – and humanity’s throwaway culture were also an inspiration.

“If we were to treat them like gold, then plastics could be a fantastic resource, but we make really disposable products… that is where the big issues are,” he tells Professional Engineering.

Chip[s] Board created the three materials in response. Chip strand board (CSB) is positioned as an alternative to environmentally unfriendly medium-density fibreboard (MDF).

Used extensively in furniture and fittings, MDF is non-biodegradable despite being roughly 80% wood fibre. Bound with urea formaldehyde, it either goes to landfill or is burned after use, polluting soil and waterways. Roughly one third of the 100m tonnes produced every year goes straight to landfill “because someone has cut a circle out of a square board,” says Minkley.

In contrast, Chip[s] Board says CSB is much more sustainable. It can reportedly be composted or recycled in-house by the company, and Minkley estimates it could replace 1-2m tonnes of MDF per year – maybe up to 5% if more global waste could be used.

The company says that none of its products contains toxic chemicals, and they are created with low water use and no production waste. One square metre of chip particle board – positioned as a composite plastic alternative – requires 2,200 potato skins or the waste from 200 bags of chips.  

Chips off the old block

The sustainability of new, resource-hungry, supposedly environmentally friendly creations such as some biofuels has been called into question in recent years, but Chip[s] Board is confident in the sustainability of its materials’ creation thanks to the estimated 100,000 tonnes of UK potato waste every year, or roughly 1m tonnes worldwide.

“From my experience, having a great engineering idea just isn’t enough – to successfully scale a company you need the right contacts and business skills to match,” said the award judging panel chairman Professor Andy Hooper as he congratulated Minkley. For Chip[s] Board, that contact is McCain, the country’s largest supplier of chips.

Minkley and his team are now exploring other sustainable material sources such as bamboo, buoyed by success last week. The CEO says: “The amount of positive responses from people there makes us believe that what we are doing will create a revolution in the materials industry, and other people think there’s a demand for this too.”

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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