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🌍 Packaging made from waste #13
Plastic packaging made from seafood, agriculture, and wood waste
Hi there 🤗
Welcome to another edition of the ‘tings newsletter 🌍
I am trying out a slightly different approach by focusing on a singular topic in an effort to make the newsletter edition as a whole more informative and interesting. I will still cover three startups but provide a deeper look at the problem. I’m not sure if it will actually be better but I think after 12 editions of the newsletter, following roughly the same format, its worth experimenting a bit. If you enjoy this new format, or don’t, let me know by commenting or liking this post 😁
🧃 We have a packaging problem. A big one. Forty percent of plastic manufactured today is for packaging, most of which gets discarded moments after opening it.
Production of plastic increased 250 fold between 1950 and 2020, growing from an annual production of 2 million tons to 500 million tons, which is set to reach one billion tons by 2050. Plastic production has grown faster than the production of any other material over that timespan! 55% of all plastic produced between 1950 and 2015 went straight to the landfill or was otherwise discarded, 30% is still in use, 8% was incinerated and only 6% has been recycled – of the 6% recycled only 1/5th remains in use, the rest has been incinerated or discarded.
The plastic waste problem is one that I’ve covered multiple times with ‘tings, as recently as the last edition, and is one that has garnered global attention for a long time. The pressure on tackling this waste problem has lead to what is being called “the most significant environmental agreement since the Paris climate accord in 2015” by Inger Andersen the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme . This last Wednesday, the 2nd of March, 175 UN delegates took the first steps in setting out a road map to negotiate a comprehensive global treaty to curb plastic pollution. They plan to reach a legally binding agreement within two years that would address all parts of the the plastic lifecycle, including production, design, and disposal. This treaty has already gathered the public backing of over 300 scientists, 140 nations, and almost 100 leaders of multinational corporations like the Coca Cola Company, PepsiCo, and Unilever. The fact that it is a legally binding treaty rather than a voluntary one like the Paris accord could lead to much faster progress and real accountability.
This treaty is a good step towards dealing with the plastic crisis, but the UN and national governments don’t have the strongest reputations for being particularly speedy. The actions of individual consumers and innovations from startups will be key to addressing the plastic value chain. Plastic is a wonderful material thats cheap, versatile, lightweight and resistant, it’s so engrained in our lives and will be extremely difficult to eliminate. Plastic food packaging can even have environmental benefits like reducing food waste by extending shelf life. Reducing plastic use and reusing when possible are key to tackling the issue but where unavoidable we need to transition from fossil based plastics to bioplastics.
One big problem with bioplastics is that not all countries or manufacturers use the same definitions so please look into it before putting it in the compost bin. In Berlin for example, the city wide waste management company BSR urges people to dispose food or other compostable waste in paper bags instead of the ‘bioplastic bags’ from the grocery stores. Wrong disposal of waste is one of the biggest reasons why organic or recyclable waste is so difficult to deal with.
🌱 So, what is bioplastic?
According to European Bioplastics, plastic can be labeled as bioplastic if it is either bio-based, biodegradable or a combination of the two. To look a little deeper, bio-based means that the material is partly made from biomass like corn, sugarcane or cellulose. Bio-based does not mean biodegradable. Biodegradable means that a material can break down using natural substances found in surrounding environments like water, carbon dioxide and compost. There are also different levels of biodegradability ratings for either home compostability or the need for industrial compost. And, given the fact that not all countries share the same definitions please be careful and don’t take bioplastic at their face value!
The fact that bioplastics are made of biomass opens up the opportunity to deal with one waste problem by addressing other waste problems. The three startups featured in this edition all take some form of biomass waste to produce true bioplastics – ones made purely from biomass and not just ‘partly’. We’ll have a look at 🦐 Shellworks who make sustainable packaging alternatives from seafood waste, 🚜 Traceless who make bioplastics from agricultural waste, and 🪵 Ecohelix who make biopolymers (building blocks for bioplastics) from wood waste.
🦐 Shellworks - Packaging made from seafood waste
Shellworks, a London-based startup, has developed a catalogue of 4 different bio-based packaging materials that can be composted completely at home. Since 2019 they have been developing the production of biopolymers, the building blocks for bioplastics, from seafood waste called Shellmer. This specific type of biopolymer is best suited to produce thin and flexible antimicrobial films that can be dissolved in hot water when no longer needed, the liquid can then be used as a natural fertiliser. Shellworks have more recently released Vivomer which is made out of microbes that can be found in marine and soil environments to produce rigid bioplastics suited for applications like cosmetics. The microbes that were used to make Vivomer will then use the discarded Vivomer as a food source and completely break it down. Shellworks have also developed natural dyes and seals. They have already signed deals with beauty companies to work on tubes, bottles and other compact packaging to replace plastics that would usually end up in landfills.
🚜 Traceless - Bioplastics made from agriculture residues
Traceless, a Hamburg-based startup, make use of agricultural leftovers like yeast or brewery residues to produce either a liquid or dry base to produce a hard plastics, plastic films, and coatings to replace single use items. Their products break down within 2-9 weeks in natural composting conditions based on the thickness of the material. Through composting the Traceless products could technically feed the original agricultural processes whose side streams they utilise to make the products in the first place. In a lifecycle assessment, a methodology to assess the environmental impact of all stages of a commercial product or service, carried out by Planet A Ventures*, Traceless materials can reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional fossil-based plastics by up to 60% and of course eliminate any microplastic pollution.
*Note: Planet A Ventures carried out the lifecycle assessment as part of their due diligence on whether to invest in Traceless or not. They did end up co-leading Traceless’ seed round.
🪵 Ecohelix - Biopolymers made from wood waste
Unlike the previous two startups mentioned Stockholm-based Ecohelix does not produce any packaging products themselves but rather sell the biopolymers required to produce packaging materials, construction materials like adhesives and fire retardants, and cosmetic ingredients like emulsifiers or dispersants. They produce the biopolymers from waste products from pulping, the step before making paper where wood fibres are separated. Wood is typically made up of 40-50% cellulose, 20-35% hemicellulose, and 15-25% lignin (which are all polymers), where the lignin binds the cellulose and comparatively shorter hemicellulose fibres together. Generally, the longer the fibres are the stronger and more expensive the resulting paper is, so the aim of pulping is to separate the cellulose from the shorter hemicellulose and lignin. Ecohelix takes the waste hemicellulose and lignin and transforms them into higher performing biopolymers* through an enzymatic process based on how trees naturally form to provide a high performing and significantly more sustainable alternative to oil and food based polymers.
Note: Due to the fact that Ecohelix are producing an ingredient and not an end-product the biodegradability could be wildly different based on how it is used... think back to the ‘partly’ aspect of bioplastics. Let’s hope customers of Ecohelix create pure bio-based products.
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🌱 Truly bio-based plastics will be a significant part of tackling the plastic waste crisis!
However, bio-based plastics will only be one part of the solution. We still need to reduce, reuse, adopt alternatives and probably address it in many more ways than I am listing here. Plastics and packaging are complex topics. It might be that we look at it again in a future edition but from a different angle.
I hope you enjoyed this edition of ‘tings looking at some aspects of dealing with the plastic packaging crisis. If you did enjoy this edition please like, comment, share, and subscribe 🤗
Yes, I’m being a true influencer and asking for engagement 🤣
Until next time, much love,