These days, it seems like every time I get food I’m left with a pile of plastic to throw away. Food delivery, meal kits, to-go orders — the ketchup packets alone add up to a staggering amount of plastic. And sadly, the vast majority of it ends up in landfills or clogging up our oceans.
Startup Decomer is trying to cut plastic use by creating a new biodegradable packaging material made from plants. According to founder Mart Salumäe, Decomer’s material is unique in that it’s soluble at a variety of water temperatures. It is also made of cheap and readily available materials, so it costs less than other biodegradable alternatives, which are typically made from petroleum or animal products and can be extremely costly to produce.
Salumäe first looked into edible packaging materials a little over two years ago while working on his masters on material sciences. Though his company started in Estonia and will keep production and R&D operations there, they are now incorporated in the U.S. and just completed famed biotechnology accelerator program at IndieBio.
Decomer’s first product will be water-soluble honey packages. Called “honey drops,” these little balls are meant to be stirred into tea or coffee. The exterior will dissolve tastelessly into the drink along with the honey. Pricing isn’t set in stone, but Salumäe told me over the phone it would probably be about 20 cents per package, with each package containing 30 honey balls. Decomer will sell the packages in retail and also have a special dispenser for use in cafes or restaurants. Salumäe said the company already has requests for the plant-based honey balls in Japan, Europe and the U.S., and plan to start selling them within 12 months.
While Decomer will first head to market with their own branded products, Salumäe, told me they also plan to gradually move towards material sales for large CPG companies. “That way, we can scale production and have a larger impact on the environment,” he explained. The company is also developing blendable packages for smoothies, water-soluble flavor packets (like what you find in ramen), and detergent packs that dissolve in your laundry. Decomer got $250,000 in seed funding from Indiebio and is now in the process of raising $1.2 million.
A wave of companies are thinking outside the box — er, bag — to create new sustainable packaging options. Algotek makes plastic alternatives from algae. Notpla turns seaweed and other plants into biodegradable packaging. Even the big guys are getting in on it: In Japan, 7-Eleven recently unveiled plans to wrap nearly 2.3 billion rice balls in plant-based plastic.
Creating plastic alternatives is becoming more and more critical. Our oceans are filling up with straws, cups, and other single-use plastics; over 8 million metric tons of plastic ends up in oceans every year. At the same time, consumers are demanding more convenient, on-the-go dining options, and that typically means more packaging. Hopefully we’ll see more creative solutions to the packaging problem before our oceans become completely clogged with plastic.