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9 Green Packaging Solutions for Reducing Plastic Waste

They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. There are about 7.7 billion of us consuming our faces off, so if there’s a heap of gold somewhere, we haven’t found it. What we have found are giant swirling patches of garbage in the Pacific Ocean and microplastics throughout the food web – and in the ice from the Arctic to the Antarctic – that aren’t part of any keto diet. The world generates at least 3.5 million tons of plastic and other solid waste a day, with the United States alone accounting for more than 260 million tons of municipal solid waste per year. While we could feed all that garbage to waste-to-energy plants until the end of time if the technology could become economically and environmentally feasible, a better solution would be to cut down on all the plastic and use green packaging.

The big picture of plastic.

The big picture of plastic. Credit: University of Georgia

We’ve told you about companies trying to invent better ways to recycle plastics, even those nonrecyclable thermoset plastics. In this article, we want to introduce you to companies ditching plastic or unsustainable materials altogether for green packaging solutions. While most are relatively small startups trying to commercialize niche products, such as growing mushrooms to use their roots for new materials, the pressure to wrap and ship stuff in more sustainable ways is being pushed by big boys like Amazon. The e-commerce behemoth has an 85-person team dedicated to improving its packaging, and is leaning on its retail network to pack their products more efficiently, CNN reported. While Amazon is focused on reducing its use of cardboard, the message is pretty clear that entire supply chains need to shake off the rust and get green.

Now let’s unpack some of the green packaging solutions out there today.

Rock, Paper, Scissors

Click for company websiteA Japanese startup called TBM Company has raised more than $90 million, including investments from Goldman Sachs, to turn rocks into paper. More specifically, it converts limestone into everything from business cards and menus to boxes for food containers – all without using water or wood pulp. Dubbed Limex, the material can be substituted for either paper or plastic in a number of applications, according to the company, which is reportedly ramping up for an IPO by 2021. Limex consists of about 80% limestone and 20% polyolefin resin, a type of polymer or plastic, making it waterproof as well as tear-proof, but still not entirely plastic free.

The Milkman Model

Click for company websiteSome of you may be old enough to remember – or even be a product of – milkmen, a legendary race of humans who once upon a time actually brought milk, and maybe eggs and butter, to your front door. That model is behind a new business called Loop from TerraCycle, a New Jersey company that has been around since 2001. While technically private, the company filed last year to raise as much as $25 million by selling stock to the public. Its main business has been to take the seemingly unrecyclable like chip bags and cigarette butts and sell them to third-party vendors that turn those raw materials into new products. For example, pen products are made from used pens or shampoo bottles that incorporate 25% of plastic collected from beaches.

Products in the Loop store.

Products in the Loop store. Credit: TerraCycle

This year, TerraCycle introduced the Loop store at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The idea is that consumers order products like shampoo or even ice cream from major brands like Colgate and Hȁagen Dazs that come in reusable containers that require a refundable deposit. TerraCycle made it onto Fortune’s annual list of companies changing the world. You had us at ice cream.

Thermal Green Packaging

Click for company websiteTerraCycle’s Loop store is an example of a low-tech solution to the packaging problem, but it’s a business model that will likely only capture the Whole Foods shoppers of the world and doesn’t address many of the other challenges of shipping stuff around the real world that really matter – like keeping chocolate-covered strawberries cold. Thermal packaging startup TemperPack, founded in 2015 out of Virginia, has raised $40 million, including a $22.5 million Series B in January of this year, to take on Big Styrofoam. It claims its patent-pending ClimaCell packaging performs as well as expanded polystyrene (aka, Styrofoam) in keeping stuff cold for hours if not days:

Graph shows efficacy of ClimaCell for thermal green packaging.

Credit: TerraCycle

The mysterious material can be recycled curbside with cardboard. The company claims the ClimaCell manufacturing process produces 97% less carbon emissions and has already helped divert 10 million pounds of plastic foam from landfills, Forbes reported. TemperPack is particularly focused on keeping it cool for the pharmaceutical industry.

Birds of a Green Packaging Feather

Click for company websiteAnother startup tackling thermal packaging is London-based Aeropowder, which takes waste feathers from the poultry industry and turns them into thermal liners for transporting temperature-sensitive products like food. The European Union produces an estimated 3.1 million tons of feather waste per year, so no problem with finding the raw material. The product is called pluumo and comes with its own graph on thermal viability (in Celsius):

Graph shows efficacy of pluumo for thermal green packaging.

Credit: Aeropowder

Pluumo is also completely compostable.

Milk: It Does the Packaging Good

We recently told you about dairy alternative companies disrupting the milk industry. Here’s one (sort of) trying to disrupt the packaging industry with water-soluble and biodegradable thermoplastic pellets based on milk protein. French startup Lactips has raised about $5.7 million since it was founded in 2014. Its most recent fundraising was a $4.1 million round that included Germany’s chemical giant BASF, which is also partnering with Lactips on product development. The company transforms unused milk protein, casein, into a thin film that is not just biodegradable but edible. However, it’s first being tested as a casing for detergents, which should make the Tide pod challenge slightly less lethal for kids.

The Last Straw

Click for company websiteFirst they came for the plastic bags, and we did nothing. Now they’re coming for plastic straws, which account for a small percentage of the more than 8 billion metric tons of plastic that humans have made since we invented the stuff but are incredibly hard to recycle. Finnish startup Sulapac, founded in 2016, has raised about $4.2 million in disclosed funding. Beauty brand Chanel became its most high-profile investor in an undisclosed round last December. The company has developed a 100% biodegradable material made of virgin wood chips and natural binders. While it touts the environmental benefits of its ocean-friendly straw – microscopic sea critters can digest the material – Sulapac makes its raw material available to plastic manufacturers, which they can use with their existing machinery.

A Plastic-like Paper Bag

Click for company websiteAnother Finnish company that is also putting a spin on replacing plastic with a material made from wood is Paptic, which has raised more than $5 million in funding. The company claims its Paptic® Tringa material boasts the best properties of both plastic and paper while being biodegradable (under industrial composting conditions) and made from 85-90% renewable sources, with a goal of reaching 100% in the short term. Paptic® Tringa can be used in various applications and used on existing paper converting lines. It’s even a bit stretchy and won’t easily lose its shape, even if folded into the size of an envelope for storage.

Bioplastic from Bacteria

Bioplastics are one of those eco categories like biofuel that we talk about a lot but the technology never seems to deliver on its promises. A Silicon Valley startup called Mango Materials is looking to change that perception by capturing methane from landfills or sewage plants, feeding it to hungry bacteria, and producing a fully biodegradable plastic in the process. Recently featured on NPR, Mango Materials has backing from the National Science Foundation and other sources to field test a fermentation facility at a sewage waste plant. The company pumps methane and oxygen into the fermenter, along with a secret ingredient, for the bugs to convert into biopolymers. Here’s the full production cycle:

The Mango Materials methane cycle for producing bioplastic.

Credit: Mango Materials

Mango Materials is targeting the textile industry, hoping to replace plastics in those high-tech garments that use plastics to wick away sweat but also break down into microplastics.

Writing on the Wall

Click for company websiteSpeaking of biofuels and algae: A Denver-based company, Living Ink Technologies, transforms algae into sustainable inks for green packaging and other products. Founded in 2013, the startup has raised $1.2 million in Seed and grant money. Most inks are derived from petroleum products, particularly the ubiquitous black ink from carbon black, which comes from heavy petroleum and is potentially carcinogenic. Living Ink sources its raw material from a company in southern California, actually using the waste product created from other applications, such as the biomass left from extracting the algae for food coloring. The leftover biomass is refined into a black pigment for various ink formulations.

Process for converting algae into ink.

Credit: Living Ink Technologies

Something to consider for your next tattoo.

Conclusion

Scientists have predicted that there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050, which is not exactly an appetizing thought. Plastic recycling will only get us so far, mainly because humans (except maybe in Japan, which has a recycling rate near 80%) can’t be trusted to do the right thing. Removing plastics from the supply chain is the clear answer, and we expect to see more and more companies and startups innovate with green packaging solutions as consumers demand – in their lazy way – more sustainable practices.

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