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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Beyond Bioplastics:
Agricultural Waste Streams Becoming Next-Gen Packaging Materials

By upcycling agricultural waste, these three startups are replacing plastic with a new wave of packaging materials that ‘make no compromises along the supply chain.’

Plastic packaging, once hailed as a revolutionary solution for preserving and protecting goods, has become emblematic of an increasingly unsustainable modern society. 40 percent of plastic production is used for packaging, only used once, and then discarded — where it can take anywhere between 20 to 500 years to break down. Since plastic was discovered, 8.3 billion metric tonnes have been produced — with 79 percent of this accumulating in landfills or in the natural environment.

Here, we look at three fledgling materials innovators working to tackle one of our most pressing environmental threats through a new generation of biobased alternatives to plastic.

traceless

Image credit: C&A

Founded in 2020 by Dr. Anne Lamp — an environmental scientist and specialist in the exploitation of proteins inherent in agricultural residues; and strategy transformation and business design expert Johanna Baare, Hamburg-based traceless® is on a mission to eliminate global plastic pollution with its novel generation of plastic-free biomaterials. The company has developed patent-pending technology that uses second-generation biomass (byproducts of food production), such as starch-production leftovers or brewery residues, to create biopolymers from which manufacturers can produce flexible films, rigid material, coatings and adhesives. The team chose agricultural-industry residues to avoid food and land-use change conflicts.

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As Lamp recently explained to Sustainable Brands® (SB): “With our technology, we can provide the missing link for a circular economy approach: Residues of agricultural food production are transformed into a holistically sustainable alternative to plastics — which later, through composting, can become organic nutrients for new plants. From these plants, we can then make new materials again — closing the loop.”

As traceless’ ‘beyond bioplastic’ materials are based on organic substances that already exist in the environment, natural microbes can break them down quickly; so, they don’t need the enhanced conditions of an industrial composting plant. The materials are compostable in home compost systems; and if they do end up in the environment, they break down into carbon dioxide, water, and humus — becoming organic nutrients for new plants to grow.

With 100 percent carbon-based content, traceless materials don’t require hazardous additives or solvents and produce up to 95 percent fewer CO2 emissions than their conventional plastic counterparts. traceless’ process transforms plant residues into granules that can be further processed using standard, plastic-industry machinery.

In early 2022, the company successfully scaled its technology from lab to pilot scale, built a pilot plant and established continuous material production. In December 2022, it collaborated with fashion retailer C&A to produce its pilot product: sock hooks.

traceless’ operating pilot plant is in Buchholz, Lower Saxony; the team plans to build a large-scale production plant in Hamburg in 2024. At the same time, product applications of the traceless material are being tested with Lufthansa Group and German ecommerce giant Otto.

“Our main focus for the next years is to scale up our production as quickly as possible, to hereby have the biggest possible contribution to solving global plastic pollution,” Lamp asserted. “But we also find it important to state that we can only realize the full potential of our solution if we join forces with others — pioneering converters and brand owners, ambitious researchers, conscious consumers, and tailored policy measures. In the face of today’s environmental challenges, there’s no silver bullet — but with a systemic approach where many solutions complement each other and all stakeholders are involved, we will succeed!”

Clement Packaging

Image credit: Clement Packaging

Based near Shanghai, Clement Packaging was founded in 2022 by father-daughter team, Dr. Simon and Helen Yang. The company’s product line includes 100 percent plant-based, compostable packaging (e.g., jars, bottles, lip balm tubes) — made from upcycled bamboo and bio-resins from other renewable plant sources — that can be disposed of in curbside composting bins. The company’s novel, patent-pending packaging material — which can stand up to liquids and is free of harmful additives — was developed as a 1:1 replacement for durable, fossil-based plastics.

“We're seeing a lot of exciting compostable packaging in the single-use space and waterless space; but there's a lack of options that can survive repeated usage over a multi-year shelf life,” Helen Yang, whose background includes synthetic chemistry research at Columbia University and years of personal-care product development, told SB. “That's where we come in — with our material that is compatible with liquids, humid environments, and temperature fluctuations that are common in the CPG space.”

Clement Packaging uses bamboo upcycled from construction-industry offcuts that would have otherwise been trashed or burnt for kindling. In addition to being fast-growing, bamboo is also an impressive carbon sink — one hectare of bamboo stands absorbs about 17 tonnes of carbon per year, which is about five times more than the equivalent number of pine trees. Clement’s bamboo-based packaging breaks down in a commercial composting facility within 90 days (or in a countertop composting machine in just 4-8 hours), thus re-entering the ecosystem as compost.

“Since some consumers don't have access to curbside composting, we made sure to choose a material that is marine biodegradable and non-eco-toxic. Just in case our product ends up in a landfill — or worse, our oceans — we know that it will still slowly and safely degrade without generating harmful microplastics or other toxins,” Yang explained.

Clement’s customers include beauty and wellness brands across Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, South Korea, the UK and US; and in retailers including Beauty4U, Credo, Sephora and ULTA. The company manufacturers its products in house, which allows it to control the entire supply chain and provide full transparency to its customers. All of the company’s raw material suppliers are located in southern China within 600 miles of its factory, minimizing the carbon footprint from shipping materials; this is important for many clients that quantify the sustainability of their packaging through life-cycle analysis.

“Our big vision is to establish a new norm for all disposable products to be both sourced sustainably and disposed of responsibly,” Yang said. “It's not enough to just be biodegradable, nor is it enough to just be sourced from plants. We're excited to see a new wave of innovative packaging materials that make no compromises along the supply chain.”

PlantSwitch

Image credit: PlantSwitch

Based in Texas, materials innovator PlantSwitch was founded in 2020 by recent Southern Methodist University graduates Dillon Baxter and Maxime Blandin — who met while studying business. Wanting to create a sustainable alternative to plastic straws, the pair developed a technology that could transform agave — the main ingredient in tequila production, which creates a lot of biomass waste — into bioplastic pellets, which can be used to create its plastic-free foodware.

“All our products are compostable — meaning, you can discard them in your backyard compost and they'll go away in just a few months,” co-founder and CEO Dillion Baxter told SB. “So, they’re zero waste and made from an upcycled feedstock — meaning, you're also giving a valuable second life to something that right now doesn't have much of a use.”

Prior to completion of PlantSwitch’s new facility in North Carolina, the company outsourced production to contract manufacturers; the new facility has the capacity to produce 50 million pounds of plant-based pellets and will enable full-scale commercial production. Though currently focused on agave, the company plans to expand to utilize a variety of agricultural feedstocks including rice hulls, wheat straw, hemp and more.

“We're really a material-science company — making the raw material that's used to make plant-based plastic products,” Baxter explained. “So, as we scale this facility, we will be focusing on selling that raw material to other manufacturers to make all types of plastic products — jars, containers, bottles, lids, pallets, trays and pretty much any [durable] plastic product under the sun.”

PlantSwitch’s pellets can be a drop-in replacement for plastic and can be used in conventional plastic-manufacturing machinery without any major modification. The company received a $5 million grant, as part of the USDA’s Climate-Smart Commodities initiative, with which it will calculate the impact of its entire supply chain — including carbon impact, end-of-life scenarios, compostability, toxicity and microplastic production.

“We're excited to have a lot of really valuable data in the near future that is going to be able to show the customer and the rest of the world ‘hey, this is truly the ecological and economic impact of what we do,’” Baxter exclaimed.

PlantSwitch is already working with major foodservice distributors — including Sysco and Gordon Food Service in the US, and Bunzl in the UK — with more partnerships to be announced when the new facility is up and running.

“Our goal is to be the best at turning plants into plastic. If you look at all the major corporations that have made all these commitments to reduce or eliminate virgin plastic in their packaging, they're all looking for a solution like this,” Baxter said. “So, the timing is really perfect for us to grow quickly and help these companies meet those sustainability initiatives.”

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