It’s no secret that the world produces—and wastes—mass amounts of plastic. But when you actually take a look at the numbers, it’s downright shocking.
National Geographic says that of the whopping 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic the world has produced, 6.3 billion metric tons have become plastic waste. And of those 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste, only nine percent has been recycled. That means 79 percent of all the world’s plastic ends up in landfills and ultimately, the oceans.
Fortunately, this is one problem that some foodtech startups are tackling by searching for sustainable materials to replace plastic packaging. A major contender in the running? Seaweed.
For the past eight years, seaweed’s place as the alternative raw material of choice has grown, and there are already several startups developing a wide range of applications for seaweed, from biofuel to cosmetics and food to pharmaceuticals. An early innovator, Loliware launched its first range of cups made from agar that are safe to consume; agar is extracted from red seaweed. Since then, startups have come out with edible water bottles made from brown seaweed and one group won a prestigious design award for their use of seaweed in commercial packaging for perfume and other goods.
Wondering how seaweed can possibly become the new plastic? It’s not as outlandish as it sounds.
First, seaweed is cheap, easy to harvest and extract, and readily accessible—it is available on every coastline. And, when compared to other potential sustainable materials, seaweed is the clear winner. For example, bioplastics, which are made from starches such as polylactic acid, require fresh water and fertilizer to grow—seaweed doesn’t. In fact, seaweed can grow up to three meters per day.
Because it is so abundant, just 0.03% of the brown seaweed in the world could replace all the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles used every year.
Seaweed’s biggest potential lies in disposable packaging. Inspired by peelable fruits (such as bananas and oranges), the idea is to use seaweed as a biodegradable container. By replacing unsustainable plastic containers, seaweed packaging would solve the problem of the shelf-life gap—the difference between the biodegradability of the container and that of what’s in the container.
Milk is a great example of this. Pasteurized cow’s milk has a shelf life of about one week – but the plastic jugs they are sold in? Each container could take up to 500 years to decompose. Seaweed packaging can decompose in around 4-6 weeks
Replace that plastic bottle with seaweed packaging, and you have a far more comparable shelf-life ratio; seaweed packaging biodegrades in soil in only four to six weeks. Plus, unlike plastic, seaweed doesn’t break down into micro-particles that are impossible to collect.
The problem has been getting more attention lately – two years ago the Ellen McArthur Foundation, a UK-based nonprofit put out a report and launched a new initiative called the New Plastics Economy, calls on major manufacturers to adopt circular modes or production and consumption for plastics where reuse and recycling becomes the responsibility of the makers of plastic containers (instead of hoping consumers do it) as opposed to a linear one which exists now.
Statistics in the report are sobering; according to the foundation “95% of the value of plastic packaging material, worth $80-120 billion annually, is lost to the economy” and they predict by 2050 (just 32 years from now), the world’s oceans will contain more plastic than fish.
Speaking of oceans, there’s another reason seaweed trumps plastic – it actually reduces global warming. Besides being cheaper, more accessible, and more sustainable, seaweed absorbs CO2 and mitigates ocean acidity. Some startups have started to pop up around seaweed farming and maintenance – like New York’s GreenWave, who are building autonomous seaweed farms to both reduce costs and reduce global warming.
2018 might be the year of seaweed and generally more innovation around sustainable packaging and circular life cycle strategies to steer the world away from its intense reliance on plastic.