Although there is a lot of buzz around bioplastics from seaweed, when it comes to the actual business of producing it, breathless media coverage is soon overtaken by the stark realities of a pioneer industry. Pierre Erwes, chairman of the Biomarine Network, sets out the challenge:
This year I contacted over 17 seaweed bioplastic designers. Most of them have smart ideas and good communication. But what is behind the scenes? Most of the time there is an empty box! […] You can have the best seaweed bioplastic solution, if you do not master the entire value chain from cultivation to processing and final product design, your success rate becomes incredibly low. How will you handle price fluctuation, availability of raw material, quantities, and the quality?
Demand is obviously not an issue as everyone is desperate for an alternative to petroleum-based plastics. The foremost challenge for the start-ups below is a reliable supply of quality seaweed. A factor that has seen very little critical attention in CEO interviews so far.
Risk of crop failure is still very real in seaweed aquaculture. Harvesting harmful algal blooms comes with its own set of issues, while wild resources can only be stretched so far.
Nonetheless, seaweed bioplastics are already being produced at a certain scale, and bigger production facilities will surely follow in time.
6 seaweed bioplastics companies
Frontrunner Loliware has raised close to 8 million dollars in funding. The start-up is mostly producing straws these days, but plans to diversify are in the works.
The production process is outsourced. “It takes us about 12 months to get to full automation [from the lab]. Once we get to full automation, we license the tech to a strategic plastic or paper manufacturer. Meaning, we do not manufacture billions of straws, or anything, in-house.” Loliware adds they use a “super-sustainable supply of seaweed”.
100 million straws a year are being produced in a pilot plant in New York, and new manufacturing facilities in Europe will have the capacity to produce 30 billion straws. Loliware’s CEO claims to have demand for 18 billion straws, and that for every 1 billion straws there is $100 million in revenue.
In the south of France, Eranova has secured 6 million euros in funding to build a factory. Their concept is to harvest harmful blooms of Ulva seaweed and, before processing, enrich the starch content of the seaweed in large raceway ponds using a patented process.
A 1.3 hectare pilot is being built in 2020. The industrial scale-up is scheduled to be completed mid-2022 and will span 50 hectares. The goal is to produce 15 to 20 000 tonnes of bio-based plastic per year, for which Eranova will need 40 000 tonnes of green algae. Since the amount of harvested algae will not exceed 8 000 tonnes, the majority of biomass will be farmed seaweed, cultivated from what the company has harvested on the beaches.
Some observers warn that the harmful blooms in the area might soon disappear if the French state decides to regulate one particularly polluting plant, but Eranova says their farmed seaweed ponds will counter any supply issues. Another possible snag is that environmentalists have expressed opposition to the factory.
Unperturbed by any naysayers, CEO Philippe Michon has the ambition to export his concept via a licensing system to “any country with beaches, sun and an algae problem”.
Founded in 2014, Notpla has so far raised 5.4 million pounds from investors including Astanor Ventures and Torch Capital. After some high-profile collaborations with Lucozade and Just Eat, Notpla says it has garnered significant interest from retailers across Europe and is now looking for manufacturing partners to fully commercialise. It has been sourcing its raw material from French producer Algaia.
Notpla has 2 products. Ooho is a flexible packaging for liquids that can be made in a range of sizes from 10ml-100ml. It is edible, made from extracts from seaweed and plants. If you don’t want to eat it you can discard it, in which case it will take less than 6 weeks to biodegrade. Notpla Coating is a home compostable coating that adds grease proofing to cardboard containers.
Evo & Co
Evo & Co is an Indonesian start-up born in 2016. It’s difficult to assess how much is being produced or where things are heading. At least they have the benefit of a large supply, since Indonesia is one of the world’s largest seaweed producers.
Oceanium, backed by aquaculture fund Katapult Ocean, plans to launch their product at the end of 2020. The company also seeks to establish its first processing plant in 2020, aiming to process 5 000 tonnes by 2024.
Founded in 2012, Algopack, based in Britanny’s seaweed cluster, is the oldest firm still on the market. Their Algoblend is made up of 50 percent seaweed and 50 percent plastic, while the newer Algopack product is made entirely from seaweed, meaning that it is not transparent but rather dark brown in colour. The end products take twelve weeks to biodegrade in soil and just five hours in the sea.
Research and prototypes
MarinaTex is made from agar from red algae and proteins from fish processing waste. A translucent, strong, odorless and flexible sheet that should degrade completely after 4 to 6 weeks, Marinatex is still in the prototype stage.
Kelpi is another start-up from the UK. No product out yet, but with an experienced founding team.
Plastisea is an EU research project to develop novel bioplastics based on cultivated and wild species of brown algae that will run until 2023.
Klarenbeek & Dros are an artist duo that designs new polymers from seaweed.