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Trading in Plastic for Kelp: Startups Exploring New Biodegradable Plastics

plastic from algae

When it comes to plastics, the figures aren’t favorable. Currently, there is a need for roughly eight percent of the world’s oil to produce plastics. Almost half of this is for disposable use, and billions of pounds of plastic reach our oceans annually. This environmental issue has been growing progressively for years, and there is a desperate need for new biodegradable plastic solutions. Because if no solutions come, there will be more plastic in our waters than fish within a few decades. Fortunately, many startups are trying to tackle this problem, and funding is beginning to support their efforts.

Currently, the biggest issue surrounding the plastics in the world involves single-use plastics. Startup companies seeking to address this problem are pursuing a number of different strategies. While each is considering new biodegradable plastic models, one is perhaps the most intriguing: the notion of making plastic from algae and kelp (better known as seaweed). If this type of plastic winds up in the ocean, it simply returns to its original habitat. This is why plastic from algae is so appealing as a new biodegradable plastic option.

(Read more about algae farming for a sustainable future.) 

Key Startups Exploring Plastic from Algae

Companies investigating how to make plastic from algae are not necessarily new. Bold Business reported on these developments nearly two years prior when spotlighting startup companies like Evoware. Evoware has developed several new biodegradable plastic products as well as some edible ones. For example, they offer edible wrappers made with plastics from algae for burger wraps, coffee sachets, and dry seasoning packets. Being based in Indonesia, Evoware knows the detrimental impact single-use plastics have on our oceans. It’s a major reason why they are aggressively pursuing new biodegradable plastic solutions.

(You might also want to know more about Biodegradable Beer Can Holders.) 

Evoware is certainly not alone. Several other startups are also exploring how to create plastics from algae and kelp. For instance, Notpla (formerly Skipping Rock Labs) might be best known for their edible capsules used by whiskey companies. But these capsules are made with plastic from algae and are currently being used for food condiment packaging. Algotek, started by students from the University of Oregon, is creating rigid plastic from algae. Their new biodegradable plastic is made by compressing kelp pellets into a rigid form. And Loliware, a New York-based startup, has raised $6 million to develop new biodegradable plastics. Their product list now includes straws, lids, cups, and utensils.

Plastic from Algae Is Not the Only Solution

Certainly, the environmental impact that plastics have serves as motivation for a number of startups. But increasingly, these companies are being funded because it not only is sustainable for the environment but financially as well. And this goes well beyond plastics from algae into a number of other new biodegradable plastic options. In fact, funding for this entire category of startups now exceeds $850 million today. And these companies are located throughout the world making their international presence known.

Zume is among the largest of these companies in terms of funding support. Originally a startup focused on robotic pizza delivery, Zume has now dedicated its efforts to new biodegradable plastic development. It has raised roughly $423 million toward these efforts. Other startups like Tipa (Israeli-based) and RWDC Industries (Singapore-based) have developed compostable plastic products. Both have raised around $40 million in venture capital funding. And TemperPack has developed a new biodegradable plastic used for insulation. Replacing the need for Styrofoam, it has raised $33 million. Thus, it seems clear that many investors perceive new biodegradable plastic as the future.

Challenges Remain but the Future Is Bright

There are advances in the development of new biodegradable plastics, but that doesn’t mean that there are no obstacles. For one, existing manufacturing systems and supply chains for plastics are highly efficient and scaled. This doesn’t currently exist for plastic from algae or other sustainable materials. Likewise, many of these new biodegradable plastic products cost more to produce, and this cost more for consumers. And naturally, getting used to new types of packaging materials represents social and cultural barriers to an extent. In order for these companies to succeed long-term, there has to be a way to address these issues effectively.

Fortunately, these startups developing plastic from algae and other sustainable materials are getting some support. In addition to recent increases in funding, major corporations are committing to using new biodegradable plastics. For example, Kellogg plans to be using completely renewable, reusable, and compostable materials by 2025. Walmart has stated it would do the same for its privately-labeled products. And Unilever has indicated it hopes to cut its non-sustainable plastic use in half by 2025. Given these developments and adequate funding support, these startups should be able to make significant headway. And in the process, we may just realize that kelp is a much more versatile plant than we ever realized.

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