Humble seaweed is an increasingly popular candidate to replace petroleum-based plastic. It doesn't need freshwater, fertilizer or even land. Its malleable structure makes it suitable for replacing plastic films used for packaging, which are common pollutants.
The Mumbai startup Zerocircle uses dried seaweed as the basis of its packaging materials, which are designed to dissolve after use. It was through researching waste management and recycling processes that cofounder Neha Jain realized the need for a material that "takes care of itself if the system falters," as she put it. "If you're looking at the footprint of plastics, you're looking at microplastics, you're looking at carbon efficiency and you're looking at its permanence," she says. Her company has been awarded several recognitions for its work, most recently becoming a finalist for the Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize.
Across the globe, Hawaiian native and California-based entrepreneur Sea Briganti initially envisioned Loliware as a maker of edible cups made of seaweed, but eventually realized that it wasn't one product line that was going to make a difference—the production process had to change. "Food technology is not well-suited for mass production at a competitive price point. We need to design for scale," she tells Forbes.
Over half a decade of development work later, defying skeptics who didn't believe seaweed could offer a scalable solution, Loliware now produces seaweed pellets that can replace plastic at scale. The brand puts the spotlight on straws, but that's just the beginning. "I can literally walk into a plastic manufacturer tomorrow anywhere on the planet, and they can replace any single-use plastic with our pellet. There's no startup capital required, no capex, I'm not creating a technology that requires custom machinery. All the technology has to be built into the materials science, not into the processing," Briganti says.
From bags to straws, single-use plastics are the primary target of government bans. India's takes effect in July, the European Union imposed one last year, and France has gone further, banning plastic packaging of fresh produce at the start of this year. In California, the first U.S. state to ban plastic bags, a proposed ban on single-use plastics will appear on the November ballot.
Such regulations are helping to advance research on alternatives, says Jain. But there remains the issue of pricing: plastics remain cheap while other materials struggle to compete, especially in countries where widespread poverty means any increase in the price of food has serious repercussions for many people. "There are developing countries that cannot afford to have a pricing that can change the cost of a five-cent biscuit," Jain says. Carbon taxes could help make plastic less competitive, but ultimately it's seaweed production that needs to reach economies of scale, she adds, noting the plastic production process has been optimized for scale and price competitiveness over the course of seven decades.
To reach that scale, more capital is required. While interest is growing, VC funding towards startups dedicated to tackling the climate emergency is largely focused on mobility and transport, but areas that have larger potential for emission reduction—such as energy, food and agriculture and the built environment—received a fraction of those investments, according to a 2021 PwC report. "[Climatetech] needs more funding," Briganti says, "There's a huge transformation happening that [investors] can be a part of. Put your money into this transformation."
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