🌍 A climate superhero #15
How algae can capture carbon, replace packaging, and reduce period waste
Hey there 🤗
After a busy, and mostly good, few weeks I’m back from a short and unannounced break with the 15th edition of the ‘tings newsletter 🌍
I skipped the previous publication date for life reasons that left little to no time to write. I was sick for a week, went to Scotland for a bachelor party and wedding, and started a new job (I joined Urban Impact Agency to help make cities smarter and more sustainable 🥳).
In this edition we’ll have a look at algae, a climate superhero, and how three startups are using it to save our planet:
🌊 Brilliant Planet are using algae to affordably sequester carbon
🛍 Kelpi are developing sustainable bioplastic packaging made from seaweed
🩸 Vyld are using seaweed to make sustainable period products
P.s. this is the third ‘tings edition in a row with the new format, so to figure out if its better (or not) I’ll put a poll at the end 😁
🦸♂️ A brief intro to algae–a climate superhero
Algae are a diverse group of aquatic organisms that have the ability to conduct photosynthesis. They do not share a common ancestor but instead are grouped based on common characteristics. There are two types of algae:
Microalgae, which are single-celled organisms not visible to our naked eye and are commonly referred to as phytoplankton.
Macroalgae, which are multi-celled organisms that we can see with our eyes and are commonly referred to as seaweed.
Interestingly, even though algae are photosynthetic and some look like plants, they are not considered plants as they do not have specialized organs and tissues, and do not have the capacity to form structures with flower, leaves, roots or a stem.
🌊 Phytoplankton produce more than 50% of our oxygen
Around 80% of all algae are microalgae, which are found in the upper layers of fresh and saltwater where they account for as much as 50-80% of our worlds oxygen production thanks to their superior photosynthetic efficiency compared to land plants. The carbon dioxide consumed during photosynthesis is incorporated into phytoplankton in the form of carbon much like how trees store carbon in their wood and leaves. The majority of the stored carbon is returned to near-surface waters when the phytoplankton are eaten or decompose, but some of it falls into the depths of the ocean where it is essentially stored for good. Annually this biological carbon pump transfers around 10 gigatonnes of carbon from the atmosphere to the deep ocean. Commercially, microalgae are used as food ingredients, in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and for the production of biofuels and bioplastics.
🌱 Seaweed grows 30 times faster than land-based plants
There are almost 10,000 different varieties of seaweed, with some being able to grow 30 times faster than land plants and varieties like kelp being able to absorb 50 times more carbon than forests. The natural carbon sequestration of seaweed is a lot lower compared to phytoplankton but seaweed has enormous potential as a sustainable and renewable material. Seaweed can be farmed in coastal waters where, in addition to growing a useful material, it can protect coastlines by dampening waves, removing harmful elements from agricultural runoff, reducing ocean acidification, and providing an oxygen rich environment for marine life. We do have to be careful in the cultivation of seaweed in open water because if non-native species are introduced there is a chance that it could become an invasive species (we all know how good humans are at introducing invasive species). Alternatively, growing seaweed in land-based tanks would reduce environmental risks, provide greater control of growing factors and offer year-round production, but this comes with additional energy and infrastructure costs. Seaweeds have similar commercial applications as microalgae, but they are naturally better suited to be used as a material rather than for storing carbon.
We have looked at various uses of seaweed in previous editions of ‘tings with Volta Greentech who reduce methane emissions from cows, BettaF!sh who make tuna alternatives, and notpla who have developed edible packaging.
🌊 Brilliant Planet - Using algae to affordably sequester carbon
The latest IPCC report stated that we will in all likelihood exceed the 1.5C mark of warming, and that negative emission technologies are needed to ensure that we only exceed it temporarily. High-tech methods for removing CO2 from our atmosphere like the direct air capture system from Climeworks are currently too expensive to remove CO2 at the scale that is required. Offsetting one ton of CO2 through climeworks costs $1,200 ($600 if bought in bulk).
London-based Brilliant Planet is using the natural, low-tech, ability of microalgae to remove carbon dioxide at a much lower cost. They are targeting a sub $50 price point once they reach scale. Their technology has the potential to capture 2 gigatons of CO2 per year at scale, which equates to around 5% of our annual emissions. They do this using three inputs: seawater, sunlight, and microalgae. Seawater is pumped into land-based ponds in unused areas of coastal desert where there is plenty of sunlight for microalgae to capture carbon through photosynthesis. Once the algae has bloomed, the carbon rich biomass is filtered out, sun-dried, and buried in remote parts of the desert where it is stable for thousands of years. Brilliant Planet started with a three square meter experiment in 2013 and are currently operating a 30,000 square meter facility in Morocco.
🛍 Kelpi - Packaging made from seaweed
I covered the plastic packaging problem before, and boy, do we have a problem. Forty percent of plastic manufactured today is for packaging, most of which gets discarded moments after opening it. Plastic production has grown faster than any other material production between 1950 and 2020, yet only 6% of it has been recycled.
For a more detailed look at the plastic problem and a look at three startups using seafood waste, agriculture residue, and wood waste to create bioplastics I recommend reading ‘tings #13 😉
Kelpi make use of seaweed, which grows incredibly fast, to develop bioplastic. They specifically focus on thin plastic films which have some of the lowest recycling rates in the UK, where they are based. In collaboration with a global beverage brand, Kelpi have developed a bioplastic film to serve as an oxygen barrier that can withstand boiling water at high pressure and supposedly outperform fossil fuel counterparts. They have also developed a fully recyclable plastic coating for cardboard and made it to the finals of the TOM FORD Plastic innovation Prize. Clearly, the problem for bioplastics is not whether they can compete with fossil based plastics on performance, but rather on price. I am curious to see whether Kelpi can use seaweed to create cost competitive plastics.
🩸 Vyld - Sustainable period products
Periods are not openly talked about, especially in the presence of men, but an issue that affects half of the worlds population should be something we talk about and address. On average women get their period for 40 years and will use somewhere between 5,000 and 15,000 pads or tampons. These products mostly end up in landfills as plastic waste. Even though applicators could be recycled, they are often rejected for sanitary reasons. Today, women have more sustainable alternatives like washable period underwear, menstrual cups, and menstrual sponges, but traditional menstrual products will likely not go out of fashion since they are so widely used and commonly known.
Berlin-based Vyld are developing a natural and more sustainable tampon material made out of seaweed to address this problem. Seaweed has been used in medical applications for decades, and with its absorbent nature will hopefully be used in tampons, or as they call them ‘kelpons’, for decades to come. Kelpons are made from a variety of seaweed that grows 10 times faster than land plants without the use of fertilizers, pesticides, or fresh water, and are bio- and marine-degradable. Vyld are also not trying to compete with existing tampon producers by building up their own manufacturing processes but want to develop their fibers to fit into existing machinery. The scale at which this innovation can be deployed will be much greater if an entire industry does not need to re-tool. Once they figure out the kelpon they want to develop fibers for other absorbent products like diapers.
I hope you enjoyed learning about this climate superhero, algae, as much as I did. I think we can all go away with a better understanding of how this wonderful organism can be used to help battle our climate crisis and hopefully we can all start to incorporate algae-based products in our day-to-day lives!
As always, if you liked or didn’t like this edition let me know by liking, commenting, or replying to the email.
Until next time, much love,
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