Can algae help solve the global plastic crisis?

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

After you finish your fries, eat the ketchup packet. When you add your pasta to boiling water, throw the bag into the pot as well.

If these instructions seem confusing to you, it’s only because you haven’t heard of Notpla, a London-based startup that designs an algae-based replacement for single-use plastic packaging. Founded in 2014, the company closed a £ 10million ($ 13.5million) Series A funding round last month, led by venture capital firm Horizons Ventures, to expand and further develop its product line.

Notpla’s products are meant to be composted or dissolved after use, although some are also edible. Current offers include sachets of condiments, water and even alcohol; wrap for products in your pantry or bathroom, such as coffee or toilet paper; and take-out boxes that replace the plastic-based coating with an algae liner to make them fully biodegradable.

Ooho can replace sachets of condiments and other single-serve liquids, while seaweed-lined take-out boxes are fully biodegradable. Credit: Notpla

Notpla’s design director, Karlijn Sibbel, says they look to nature as inspiration “for the ideal packaging”, like the skin of a fruit. “A skin will eventually be used (as nutrients) by nature, and will go away and become part of the cycle,” she said.

The approach seems particularly relevant as the world comes to terms with the effects of decades of unhindered plastic production. According to the UN, 300 million tonnes (331 million tonnes) of plastic waste is produced worldwide each year, and of the 8.3 billion tonnes (9.15 billion tonnes) of plastic produced since the start of the 1950s, about 60% were landfilled or discarded. Microplastics – tiny particles that are often the result of the breakdown of larger plastics – pollute the ocean, the air, and our bodies.

Fruit peels served as inspiration for  "the ideal packaging," according to design director Karlijn Sibbel, because they break down quickly and provide nutrients to the soil.

Fruit peels served as the inspiration for “the ideal packaging”, according to design director Karlijn Sibbel, because they break down quickly and provide nutrients to the soil. Credit: David Lineton / Notpla

In recent years, there has been a growing movement against single-use plastics, as many experts have argued that the products are unnecessary and harmful, and companies have been criticized for using them excessively – such as in 2019, when Whole Foods peeled and individually wrapped oranges went viral. In the United States, some states and municipalities have taken action: New York has banned most plastic shopping bags, and in Miami Beach, plastic straws have been banned. Abroad, the European Union enacted a broad ban on single-use plastics this summer, and India plans to do the same next year, the government said in August.

“It is becoming increasingly clear how important the plastic problem is,” Sibbel said. “Manufacturers” use materials that last for thousands of years, “she explained, but for products that are only used” for a few minutes. ”

“This mismatch is something we need to resolve,” she added.

Rethinking plastic

The founders of Notpla, Rodrigo García González and Pierre Paslie, first saw algae as the solution to the global plastic problem because they are abundant, grow quickly, do not compete with land-based crops, and sequester carbon from the air. , Sibbel explained.

There are also many different species of algae, and they can be harvested or cultivated. (Notpla uses cultured plants.)

“Algae don’t use the soil; they don’t use pesticides,” Sibbel said. “It can thrive in the ocean and the sea, where it has many positive benefits, allowing it to create new ecosystems in which other organisms can thrive.”

This startup manufactures packaging from algae

Since its founding, the startup has received grants from British government agency Innovate UK and circular economy nonprofit Ellen MacArthur for its first product, the Ooho sachet, which contains individual servings of liquids. The new round of funding will be used to accelerate production of Ooho and Notpla coatings, while further developing their new seaweed paper and new multipurpose wrapping film.

The paper is made from the fibers left over from the creation of other Notpla products and can be used to make items like gift wrap or clothing tags, while the film wrap can hold most dry or dry products. moist with low water content.

Notpla's flexible film can replace plastic film and packaging.

Notpla’s flexible film can replace plastic film and packaging. Credit: David Lineton / Notpla

“What’s exciting is that this is a film that can replace most of the flexible packaging you see around,” Sibbel said. Potential contents could include coffee grounds, toilet paper, or the screws included for assembling the furniture. For food products, such as pasta, they even experimented with adding flavors to the packaging, so that dissolving the bag could add seasoning to the pan.

“You can cook with it. And you can really start to rethink what we can do with these materials,” she explained.

Industry changes

Some of Notpla’s products are available online, but the company has also entered into major partnerships in the UK and Western Europe to supply drinks at festivals like DGTL in Amsterdam and Glastonbury in Somerset. In 2019, Notpla distributed 36,000 Oohos filled with Lucozade Sport energy drink during the London Marathon and provided Glenlivet edible capsules during London Cocktail Week.

London Marathon runners received a serving of Lucozade Sport to keep them hydrated.

London Marathon runners received a serving of Lucozade Sport to keep them hydrated. Credit: Notpla

Last year, the startup tested 30,000 take-out boxes at various UK restaurants in conjunction with online food ordering service Just Eat, and plans are underway to offer the boxes across Europe in 2022.

As they grow, the Notpla team is hoping that algae could replace single-use plastic in the supply chain more broadly, Sibbel said, but with the volume of plastic in use globally, she understands the enormity of such a task.

“I don’t think one material (or) one solution is going to solve everything, but we do think algae really ticks the right boxes,” she said.

Once the algae have been cleared of the materials to make the Notpla sachets, films and coatings, the remaining fibers can be used to make paper.

Once the algae have been cleared of the materials to make the Notpla sachets, films and coatings, the remaining fibers can be used to make paper. Credit: Notpla

Rethinking when and why we used plastic will be crucial for Notpla to break through to other industries, Sibbel said. “Plastic can do a lot of things,” she added. But it is a question of asking, “Is it really necessary for this application?” ”

She mentions the packaging of products like tomatoes, which have holes to let the food breathe.

“You don’t have to have the properties of plastic. Why do we use plastic? Sibbel asked, laughing. “I really hope to see the industry move and also embrace (change) in a positive way.”

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