Inside the lab of the Bay Area-based startup Sway, a pattern of a skinny piece of clear materials appears just like the plastic usually utilized in procuring luggage and wrappers. Another pattern, inexperienced and speckled, reveals what the fabric is definitely constituted of: seaweed, not the fossil fuels which can be normally utilized in plastic manufacturing.
“I spent about 10 years as a brand and packaging systems designer, so I was oftentimes the one responsible for bringing plastics into a brand ecosystem,” says Julia Marsh, cofounder and CEO of Sway, which not too long ago introduced a $2.5 million seed spherical of funding. “And that felt really at odds with my identity as an environmentalist and naturalist.”
The plastic problem for packaging is immense: Millions of tons of plastic leak into the ocean annually, and far of that trash is packaging. Ninety-five percent of the fabric worth of plastic is misplaced after its first use. Because virtually all plastic is constituted of fossil fuels, it’s additionally a major contributor to local weather change, and one latest report estimates that within the U.S., the plastics trade will pollute greater than coal by the top of the last decade.
Some of the present alternate options have challenges. A compostable fork, for instance, is perhaps constituted of corn-based plastic that requires fertilizer and enormous quantities of land that might in any other case be used to develop meals. (The sort of plastic constituted of corn can also be troublesome to compost, even in industrial composting services—and in cities the place no municipal composting exists, it can find yourself within the trash.) Other new supplies, like a kind of plastic constituted of meals waste or plastic constituted of captured CO2, are promising, however could require costly new services for manufacturing.
As she researched choices, Marsh realized that seaweed had potential—it requires no land or fertilizer to develop, and because it grows, it gives each environmental and social advantages, since rising seaweed on coastlines around the globe is a crucial supply of revenue and jobs. “It became an obsession pretty quickly,” she says.
“Seaweed is a sustainable material and good for the climate and environment because like many terrestrial plants, it plays an important role in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequesters a significant amount of carbon per year,” Jan Yoshioka, director of Blue Economy funding on the nonprofit Conservation International, whose enterprise arm participated within the latest spherical of funding for the startup, says over electronic mail. “Beyond their climate mitigation benefits, many species of seaweed are also highly effective at helping to improve water quality and clarity, while reducing the negative impacts of nutrient enriched runoff and other land-based pollution on coastal ecosystems.”
Right now, most of the seaweed that’s harvested is used for meals, together with an additive used to stabilize ice cream. But the cellulose harvested from the seaweed may also be used to make Sway’s proprietary system, which may then be used to make plastic movies. The materials can work in current plastic manufacturing tools, Marsh says.
It will likely be necessary for the corporate to work rigorously with the availability chain and consider how manufacturing can scale responsibly, and to be sure that the merchandise do really get composted, says Kate Daly, managing director of the Center for the Circular Economy on the VC agency Closed Loop Partners. “As with any shift in sourcing and supply chains for innovative materials, the use of our oceans and agricultural land to grow these kinds of resources needs to be assessed against food production, among other use cases, to ensure the highest and best use of resources,” she says. “There is a lot to consider when evaluating innovative material solutions, and it’s only through collaboration that we will drive value to all stakeholders across the system and create best practices for an optimal pathway forward that addresses challenges at a systems level.”
The startup continues to be optimizing its formulation, and can use the brand new funding to maneuver from the lab to a pilot section. But it says that the fabric is already stronger than regular low-density polyethylene, which is usually used for grocery luggage and packaging movie. The seaweed plastic could be made clear, or in colours and textures that come from the seaweed itself, for manufacturers that wish to make it extra apparent that they’re not utilizing abnormal plastic. The workforce has additionally run early exams displaying that the fabric can rapidly biodegrade in a yard.
Sway is starting with a seaweed various to plastic procuring luggage and the skinny plastic wrappers used round clothes in on-line orders. Other makes use of for skinny movie plastic, together with meals packaging, will observe. To Marsh, merchandise would ideally include no packaging or reusable packaging, however that isn’t the fact. And whereas it’s debatable that plastic procuring luggage can simply get replaced by reusable luggage—and broader bans on single-use luggage are possible—there are nonetheless “billions of plastic retail bags that will continue to be in use across the United States,” she says, and reusable luggage aren’t essentially an accessible possibility for everybody.
“We want to design solutions that make conscious consumption more accessible to people,” she says, “so that when they interact with a Sway retail bag, maybe there’s messaging that says, ‘hey, guess what, I’m made from seaweed. This is the seaweed farmer who grew your bags. And good on you for opting to be a part of the climate movement, because guess what, this material is going to compost into healthy soil in your backyard.’”