The world is finally coming together to find solutions to our most pressing global problems like greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change, waste pollution, deforestation and ecosystems degradation due to human interception.
Currently, our economy relies heavily on plastic made with chemicals sourced from fossil fuels that have become one of the most inexpensive and omnipresent materials used practically to make everything we consume.
Plastics are used in packaging, clothes, paints, the cosmetics we apply, in the transport sector, in other words, in a wide variety of products. Due to the world’s plastics addiction, there are even microplastics in human bodies. A study has shown that a quarter of blood samples contained polyethylene, which is the most common material plastic carrier bags are made from.
Researchers are constantly examining just how much plastics and microplastics can harm human health. Even though the composition of plastic particles varies, some of them contain chemicals that are known to interfere with the body’s hormones and degrade human health.
Plastics are also responsible for a significant part of the greenhouse gas emissions that are released into the atmosphere each year. At every phase of its life, from extraction and transport to refining and manufacturing to waste management and pollution in the environment, plastics are a heavy emitter of CO2.
At refineries, they poison the air and leak toxins into the water. After oil is converted into plastic, millions of pellets spill into waterways during transport, storage, loading, and cleaning. Around 160 million tons of plastic bags, wrappers and pouches are produced across the globe each year that remain in nature for centuries, clogging our environment.
According to some research, all traded plastics in the world are enough to wrap up our planet 13 times. Less than 10% of all plastics globally are recycled and the rest lands in landfills or the environment. A whopping 8 million metric tons of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans annually.
In 2019, production and incineration of plastic added 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. By 2050, the combined GHG emissions from plastics could reach over 56 gigatons. As plastics are made out of CO2, when they degrade in nature, they release back the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. These are just a few of the highly alarming facts pressing the need for a change towards sustainability of the materials used by the economy globally.
Despite their drawbacks, plastics have played their part in the economic progress, they have made consumer products more accessible and have taken off the pressure from some severely exploited natural resources. However, their time now is up! The economy’s heavy dependence on them has turned into a massive problem that needs urgent solutions.
How To Reduce Plastic Waste?
As the industry is aware of the problems surrounding plastic overuse, an increasing number of companies are working to produce replacements for fossil-fuel-based materials. Nature abounds in sustainable materials like bamboo, sand, banana plants, seaweed, algae, agricultural residue, all of which could be used to make eco-friendly versions of the straws, shopping bags, bottles, food wrappers and all other plastic products we are so dependent upon.
Seaweed as a feedstock for producing natural plastics is becoming popular. The benefits from using these marine plants in the industry are numerous and most of all, they eliminate all the negative externalities of plastics use.
Seaweed and other similar biomaterials being used in our industries to make a variety of products are the evolution in our lives and the solution to guilt-free economic growth. What they can offer that plastics can’t, is nurturing and replenishing our environment instead of clogging and destroying it.
Benefits of Seaweed Based Plastic Products
When growing, seaweed feeds on CO2 and sequesters it for a long time, removing CO2 emissions from the atmosphere. Instead of carbon-intensive, it is actually reducing CO2 emissions. In fact, it excels as a carbon removal tool as it takes 20 times as much CO2 as forests. Cultivation of seaweed on a large scale could remove gigatons of CO2 from the air annually. When processed into plastics-replacement products, the CO2 it has taken out of the atmosphere during its lifetime will be sequestered.
Seaweed is also inexpensive, low-input, widely abundant feedstock. It is farmed on coastlines around the world, without the need for land, fresh water, demands little equipment and requires no pesticides or fertilizers. The seaweed production sector also provides jobs to vulnerable societies that are most affected by climate change and waste pollution. For many of seaweed farmers, this industry alleviates them from poverty and sends their children to school.
Scaling seaweed based plastic, will make them competitive in price and will make consumption accessible to all consumers, regardless of geography or income. They are also degradable when they land in nature, so they eliminate the plastics waste problem. They allow society to make a zero waste lifestyle a reality.
Companies Producing Seaweed Based Products
Some companies are already innovating in creating seaweed based products and thus realizing the net zero economy. Three startups – Sway, Zerocircle and Notpla are making seaweed based replacements of traditional fossil fuels plastic.
Sway is an American company offering seaweed based, home-compostable replacements for regenerative thin-film plastic packaging at scale. Zerocircle is an India-based company making ocean-safe packaging materials from locally cultivated seaweed that dissolves harmlessly in nature. Notpla is a London-based start-up on a mission to make plastic waste disappear by pioneering natural-membrane packaging that uses seaweed as an alternative to single-use.
The three companies are also the winners in the TOM FORD Plastic Innovation Prize which publicly validated their capacity to meet stringent standards on scale, cost, performance, degradation, and impact.
We reached out to Julia Marsh, Co-Founder & CEO of Sway, Neha Jain, CEO and founder of Zerocircle and Pierre Paslier, co-CEO and cofounder of Notpla who shared some valuable information about their products, mission and environmental impact.
As Julia from Sway was drawing inspiration from nature, she identified seaweed as the most promising feedstock to fuel a benevolent materials revolution which brought the startup Sway to life. Joined by co-founders Matt Mayes and Leland Maschmeyer, Sway was incorporated in 2020. Three years later, the team has expanded to include engineers, supply chain specialists, and seaweed experts united in the mission to scale materials that replenish the planet.
“Sway is a clean tech startup scaling seaweed based, rapidly compostable plastic replacements, beginning with flexible packaging suited for apparel, accessories, dry goods, and beyond. Our products are optimized for compatibility with existing machinery, integrating seamlessly into traditional plastic manufacturing infrastructure for ease of adoption. After use, Sway packaging decomposes in both home and industrial compost environments, generating healthy soil while simultaneously replenishing the social and ecological systems harmed by petroleum plastics,” commented Ms Marsh for Carbon Herald.
Sway has currently two patent-pending technologies which are ready for deployment. Ms Marsh shared that Sway’s pilots are slated for this spring, with its first-ever public-facing pilot that happened on Earth Day, April 22 in partnership with Graf Lantz.
“Building from the results of pilots, Sway is focused on market penetration in the fashion, home goods, and food spaces in both retail and e-commerce, working with a selection of major consumer brands at launch. In tandem, we will expand our product offering to include more complex packaging applications such as mailers, pouches, and food wrappers. With each new product application, we will unlock another opportunity to combat pollution,” she adds.
Zerocircle is another player in the sustainable single-used bioplastics industry. It is a material science company founded in 2020 in India and creates ocean and wildlife safe materials derived from sustainably farmed seaweed.
As the company’s CEO Neha Jain shared for Carbon Herald, its seaweed powered solution includes thin films, food-safe and plastic-free coatings, tree-free paper and other rigid materials that are used in the making of products for the fashion and packaging industry. Its food wraps, food safe coatings and biodegradable carry bags are designed to naturally degrade in soil and dissolve in water without harming the environment and do not need human intervention at their end of life.
“With thin films, we’ve only scratched the surface in terms of the possibilities that seaweed has to offer. We already have used parts of the biomass to create our films, coatings and the paper. As we move forward, we have noticed that as a feedstock, seaweed has immense potential to be the source of many future materials that can replace different types of plastics which are omnipresent, sometimes even hidden…
Additionally, we are not just replacing plastic, our larger aspiration is to eliminate materials that are petroleum-based and help brands switch to everything biobased. The applications can go as far as replacing plastics in the fashion and cosmetic industry (microbeads) to replacing the vegan leather that’s largely PU-based plastic leather.
Seaweed and other natural but non-competing resources, when come together, can replace several synthetic materials that are created to make products that we use in our daily lives. We are a part of the revolution that seeds new material as building blocks for future materials used in everyday products,” comments Ms Jain on its products’ immense opportunities.
Last but not least, Notpla is another startup that produces all-natural packaging solutions. It contributes to a net zero and waste-free economy by developing packaging alternatives to many single-use plastics and uses seaweed as a feedstock.
“In the fight against climate change, seaweed could be a surprising – but vital – weapon. Seaweed is one of the planet’s most abundant sources of biomass – Giant Kelp’s biomass for instance increases by 20% per day, its production does not compete with food crops, and requires no fertliser or fresh water to produce… Actually, if 9% of the ocean had seaweed farms, we could draw down all the CO2 we produce (La Revoluton des Algues, Vincent Doumeizel),” comments co-founder Pierre Paslier for Carbon Herald.
Notpla packaging solutions biodegrade in nature in 4-6 weeks without the need for industrial composting or special conditions. Another good news is that the material is falling outside of the new EU Single-Use Plastic Directive which aims to ban synthetic materials such as PLA, PHA and other bioplastics.
“Our ambition is to reach global scale by scaling our commercialisation, entering new markets and convincing key stakeholders within the packaging industry to adopt our packaging solution. Going forward, we also want to use the spotlight that is now on us to make sure change is happening in the right way. We will step into our role as activists and use our story to encourage more people to join the fight against single-use plastics. As part of this, we want to continue building a network of influencers and changemaking organisations to encourage important conversations and drive change through behaviour and policy,” shares Mr Paslier.
The startup is also one of the winners of the TOM FORD Plastic Innovation Prize – the first global competition focused on catalysing scalable and biologically degradable alternatives to conventional plastic polybags made from fossil fuel or biofuel feedstocks.
“Throughout the process of this Prize, we discovered a new and unique “biological degradation at end-of-life” testing method that goes far beyond the standard biodegradability test… To win the Plastic Innovation Prize, the material had to demonstrate soil and marine biological degradation under conditions that closely approximate natural environments, without producing any toxic byproducts as they degrade, such as microplastics or any other toxic materials. This test is much stronger to help identify what a true environmental packaging solution is or not,” explains Mr Paslier.
Additionally, the company has recently won another award – the Earthshot Prize of £1,000,000, in the category “Build a Waste-Free World”. The prize allow it to focus on research and develop new innovative products that will grow its portfolio of sustainable packaging solutions.
Finding alternatives to fossil fuel based plastics is a prerequisite for a net zero economy. Seaweed could be a way for us to utilize the inherent generosity of nature to make everything we need in our daily lives to foster economic progress and skip the negative externalities of fossil-fuel based plastic. Instead of using the ocean as a landfill, humans can take advantage from the benevolent opportunities it presents us.