Almost every day, it seems there is a new headline about the intensifying problem of plastic waste. National Geographic quantified the issue: 91% of plastic isn’t recycled. (In the US, 70% of plastics end up in landfills, according to the EPA.) The Guardian alluded to the world’s “throwaway culture” as a contributor to the problem. The Atlantic profiled the plastic straw to explain how that throwaway culture came to be. The New York Times has covered the how local communities and whole countries are grappling with the plastic problem; it has also provided consumers with information on plastic recycling. And a recent article in The New Food Economy shed light on “compostable packaging” could actually be making the environmental problem worse.
As the public becomes more informed, governments are taking action. Significantly, China, which has imported nearly half of the world’s plastic waste since 1992, banned 24 materials from entering its borders in 2018. Rwanda has had a ban on single-use plastic bags in place for more than a decade. And the FDA recently provided new guidance on using recycled plastics in food packaging. (Check out National Geographic’s running list of private and public actions against plastic pollution.)
Meanwhile, consumers are increasingly demanding more sustainable packaging materials and are using their dollars to speak for them. Half of consumers in the US and UK reported that they’re making a conscious effort to cut down on the amount of single-use plastic they consume, according to a 2019 study, while 42% said that choosing products made from recyclable or sustainable materials are an important factor in their day-to-day shopping decisions.
The momentum has opened opportunities for packaging innovation, which a growing number of startups are seizing with cutting-edge, eco-friendly solutions. Mobius, which makes biodegradable plastic pellets from paper industry waste, is just one example.
Mobius’ product uses lignin, which is best described as the glue that holds plants and trees together. For the paper industry, lignin has to be removed in order to make most products, but as the has waned in the digital era, it is looking for ways to unlock value from waste. Mobius enables them to do that, but converting lignin into a form that can be used other bio-based materials. “The resulting product is a pelletized resin that can be converted into things like flower pots and horticulture containers, as well as films in the specialty crop industry,” Mobius CEO Tony Bova told AFN.
A number of companies have tried before to turn lignan into a viable packaging material, but most other solutions are expensive, Bova adds. “Lignan is notoriously difficult to work with. It could be from pine trees or corn stover, for example. All the lignans behave differently, and there is a lot of variability in the feedstock.”
Mobius is focused on lignan for now, but the company sees all waste streams as potential sources for biobased materials. “Our technology is based on work I did in an area of organic chemistry that always interested me: sustainable biodegradable plastics,” Bova said.
Feeling the pressure
In response to growing pressure from consumers on the food industry’s all-around sustainability, corporations are setting ambitious plastic-reduction targets.
Walmart, the largest retailer in the world, hopes to reach 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging status for its private label brands by 2025. It is also phasing out single-use plastic bags and is incorporating recycling labels that inform consumers on where to dispose of certain materials.
Kellogg’s is aiming to switch to completely reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by the end of 2025, while also adopting compostable and paper food service products in its plants and offices. It is already working to swap out plastic cereal pouches in its European products for recycle-ready materials by the end of this year.
Hershey is striving to achieve zero waste-to-landfill at its facilities and a 95% recycling rate by 2025. Consumer packaged goods giant Unilever is also taking a proactive stance on plastic packaging and investing in circular economy initiatives that ensures plastic packaging components can be reused, recycled, or composted.
To meet these targets, corporations will increasingly look to innovators with an interest like Bova’s and solutions like Mobius’s that create viable, affordable, and scalable packaging alternatives to conventional materials. Bova isn’t worried about competition any time soon. In fact, he believes more players are needed in the bio-packaging space.
“I think a lot of us are working on similar technologies, but sometimes our technologies are complementary to one another,” Bova says. “From a raw materials standpoint also, so many parts of this industry have different requirements. One part of the package may use this plastic, but the other part may use a different plastic. So many of us are trying to work together because even collectively, we are not as loud as the incumbent parts of the industry. We account for less than 5%.”
Solutions versus disruptions
While some entrepreneurs hope to make a bigger impact by disrupting the industry, Bova doesn’t believe that disruption is always the most effective solution, particularly in the packaging industry, where there is already massive and complex infrastructure in place. Instead, Mobius and a number of other startups are hoping to simply swap out some of the raw materials upstream.
“Countless companies that have designs for products and equipment to create specific components,” he explained. “For us to feel that we need to upset that, and to disrupt it all at once, wouldn’t help the industry as a whole to solve the challenge of reducing plastic’s footprint.”
Here are 25 companies developing innovative packaging solutions in the food industry:
- Agilyx – Launched in 2006, the Oregon-based startup created a fully recyclable polystyrene, the same material used to make the infamous red Solo cups.
- Arekapak – The Berlin-based startup created a sustainable packaging design from the areca palm leaf that it claims requires less water and energy consumption for production without added chemical substances.
- BioCellection – Founded in 2015, the California-based startup developed a technology that converts plastic bags into things like ski jackets and eco-friendly solvents. The company is also an IndieBio Accelerator graduate.
- Bioplastech – Founded in 2009 as a spin-off from the University College Dublin, the company uses bacteria to convert plastic to a biodegradable polyester.
- Bioplas – Founded in 2014, the Sydney-based startup makes compostable waste bags for food waste collection, agricultural mulch film, and more from certified Mater-Bi raw materials and compostable inks.
- BlockCycle – Founded in 2017, the Australian startup uses blockchain technology to target plastics with a waste-to-value marketplace.
- Candy Cutlery – Founded in 2016, the Canadian startup developed dessert spoons and small glasses that are made entirely of 100% natural cane sugar. The packaging is 100% recyclable.
- Do Eat – The Belgian startup created a bioplastic derived from potato industry residues like potato peel, wash water, and beer waste.
- Ecoshell – The Mexican startup exports cutlery, bags, and containers that are biodegradable, compostable, or bio-based created from sugar cane and corn starch derived from industrial waste products.
- Eggplant – Founded in 2013, the Italian startup created a biodegradable plastic alternative that’s made using a zero-waste process. It’s also non-toxic, which is important for consumer packaged goods and agriculture.
- Evoware – The Indonesian startup has developed an eco-friendly, biodegradable, and edible packaging for food products from seaweed and algae.
- Lactips – Founded in 2014, the French startup created a water soluble and biodegradable thermoplastic pellets based on casein, a milk protein. They can be used to make a variety of packaging materials including food.
- Loliware – Founded in 2015, the New York-based startup has combined seaweed intelligence with innovative manufacturing methods to create Loliware Edible Tech (LET), which it claims is the first certified edible bioplastic in the world. It started by creating edible straws.
- No Waste Technology – This startup is tackling laminated paper, which is used routinely in convenience food packaging, by offering laminated papers that are 100% recyclable and sustainable.
- Origin Materials – Founded in 2008, this startup created bio-based plastic bottles containing 80% renewable materials like cardboard and sawdust. Half of its capital investment to date has come from major food corporates like Nestle and Danone.
- Pond Biomaterials – The Danish startup produces bio resi systems that it claims are 100% bio-based and fully biodegradable in nature. They are suitable to bind a number of natural fibers like flax, hemp, pineapple, palm leaves, cotton, banana, and jute.
- Recycling Technologies – Founded in 2011, the EU-based startup provides a solution to chemically recycle end-of-life plastic back to a crude oil equivalent called Plaxx, which is a synthetic oil that has multiple industrial applications.
- Sapertech – Founded in 2010, this German startup’s technology that allows laminated packaging materials to be separated more easily. Many packaging materials don’t make the recycling cut because they contain mixed materials like soup cartons or cardboard and aluminum combos.
- SafetyNet Technologies – Founded in 2011, the London-based startup is trying to clean up pollution in the fishing industry with a user-friendly electro-mechanical device.
- Skipping Rocks Lab – Founded in 2014, the London-based startup created edible packaging material derived from seaweed and other plant materials called “ooho” that can even hold liquids.
- Solutum – This startup developed a technology that is intended to replace a number of plastics with a completely different material that provides the same attributes while biodegrading quickly.
- Sulapac – Founded in 2016, the Finnish startup creates fully biodegradable packaging materials from wood that can be molded, shaped, and mass-produced just like plastic. It also offers microplastic-free marine degradable straws.
- TAG Packaging – The Los Angeles-based startup developed a foaming technology called 100BIO that creates a biodegradable styrofoam that can compost in less than nine weeks without exuding carbon dioxide, heavy metals, or methane. It uses 60% less raw materials than conventional paper or plastic products.
- TIPA – Founded in 2010, the Israeli startup manufactures bio-based, fully compostable packaging for the food and fashion industry. It compares its packaging material to orange peel, decomposing in 180 days in compost conditions.
- Xylophane AB – Founded in 2004 and acquired by Seelution in 2016, the Swedish startup developed renewable and biodegradable barrier material for packaging that acts as a barrier to oxygen, grease, and aroma while improving the shelf life of sensitive foods.
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