Meal kits may help you make good use of fresh ingredients, but there has been a lot of buzz about the waste they generate. While most of their insulation, containers, and wrapping are technically recyclable, many have to be broken down or driven to particular recycling facilities — which means that most of the packaging ends up in a landfill.
London-based startup Aeropowder is trying to reduce packaging waste by making use of a different waste stream: feathers.
Their first product, called ‘Pluumo,’ is 95% waste feathers and 5% biobinder wrapped in a compostable sheet. This biodegradable product is meant to insulate perishable food and replace polystyrene (a non-recyclable material used for packaging) in food delivery and grocery ecommerce.
According to CEO and cofounder Dr. Ryan Robinson, the U.K. wastes one thousand tons of feathers every week, and the E.U. wastes 3.1 million tons a year. (He didn’t have stats for U.S. wastage.) He and his co-founder Elena Dieckmann decided to take this massive waste stream and turn it into something valuable. “Basically, we’re up-cycling byproducts,” he told me — which is a fancy way of saying that they’re recycling a waste product into something better.
After their launch in 2016, Robinson and Dieckmann initially focused on turning waste feathers into building insulation. However, they were soon approached by companies looking to use Pluumo as a packaging insulator, so they pivoted to develop a product for food transport.
Two years later, they had a product that would insulate food as effectively as polystyrene and biodegrade much more quickly. Aeropowder just sold their first set of units (around 350 feather-packed “sheets”) to a craft butcher in Oxford this month. Robinson told me that their feather-packed sheets cost 10-20% more than conventional polystyrene at the moment, but he expects it to be competitive soon.
As of now, Aeropowder gets their feathers as surplus from the down industry. They pay a small fee to use feathers that are too big or too bulky for pillowcases and comforters. The end game, however, is to source their feathers from the poultry industry. “At the moment, poultry producers actually have to pay to get rid of feathers,” said Robinson. Since regulations prevent feathers from being burned or tossed into a landfill, the poultry industry has to turn them into extremely low-grade animal feed, which has high labor costs and low return.
Aeropowder currently works with manufacturing partners to produce their insulation but plan on opening their own production facility. Actually, they have even bigger dreams for production. “This is just a concept, but we want to make a special kit that gets plugged in locally to a poultry processing plant and creates Pluumos to use in that area,” Robinson told me. The kit would wash and process the feathers on-site — which has to happen within 24 hours lest they start to smell. That way they can capture mass waste streams throughout the world, especially in places that struggle with infrastructure and access to materials, without having to ship feathers or finished Pluumos insulation back and forth and adding to the carbon footprint.
Yes, there’s a lot of “hoping” going on here — but the market for Aeropowder’s product is certainly there. As anyone who’s read the internet lately knows, grocery ecommerce and food delivery are on the rise. At the same time, the global sustainable packaging market is expected to reach $440.3 billion by 2025; an almost 8% increase from 2015. Combined, this means there’s a big opportunity for food insulation that’s both effective and sustainable.
So far, Aeropowder’s four-person team (the two co-founders plus two interns) has raised two hundred thousand pounds through grants and awards. They’ve also racked up an impressive pedigree of awards; the founders were in the Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe Social Entrepreneur 2017 and the company was recently was named a finalist in the 2018 Thought for Food (TFF) Challenge.
Robinson told me that they’ve also had interest in Pluumos from pet food producers and confectionary organizations, as well as food delivery giants looking to keep their meals warm en route to customers’ doorstep. Robinson said they’re even exploring ways to use Pluumos as insulation for pharmaceutical and biotech transport.
It’s still too early to tell if Pluumos will indeed be a sustainable, affordable, and scalable alternative to packaging like polystyrene. But as the poultry industry continues to grow and we move towards a more delivery-heavy food system, both the market and demand are certainly there.