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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
A Clean, Circular Materials Future Is No Longer a Fabrication

At SB’23 San Diego, three sets of innovators at the forefront of the materials and packaging space shared key insights into the biobased and circular solutions driving a sea change in the market.

Next-gen materials carving paths to more sustainable, ethical industries

L-R: Jesse Henry, Priti Pharkya and Sasha Calder

‘Next-generation materials’ are created from substances engineered to be sustainable while providing equal if not better performance compared to traditional materials. In this Monday morning workshop, companies working to drive this transformation shared their insights on how to create scalable, traceable, next-generation materials with minimal environmental impact.

Divided into two hour-long panels, the first focused on the evolution and range of next-generation materials. Moderated by Dispatch Goods CEO Lindsey Hoell led the first discussion — with Ann Lee-Jeffs, Global Head of Sustainability at Modern Meadow; and Gayatri Keskar, VP of Research at Material ConneXion — on how their companies are focused on determining the best material for products that function as well as their conventional counterparts, but can also be easily adapted and made at scale.

Modern Meadow — which creates upcycled, plant-based leather and other versatile, biobased alternatives to common, conventional materials that don’t rely on petrochemicals & animal-derived inputs — is driven by a dual focus on sustainability and high performance. Company processes are hard to change, and Modern Meadow is pushing its customers to be more innovative.

“Companies are creatures of habit, and it is our responsibility to think outside the box,” Lee-Jeffs said. “We have a unique opportunity to be a catalyst for change.”

This pioneering approach helps its brand partners not only benefit the environment by reducing their dependence on petrochemicals and animal inputs — it also helps them pave the path for a more sustainable, ethical materials industry.

Material ConneXion plays a pivotal role in assisting brands as they grapple with the intricate task of selecting the most appropriate materials for their products. Sustainability is multifaceted; and as Keskar pointed out, it can vary significantly from one company to another. Material ConneXion’s approach is to encourage businesses to define their objectives in regard to sustainability in an effort to pinpoint what they consider a non-negotiable.

“We encourage companies to define what is a nonstarter for them,” she said, “then, find a feedstock which will align with those value propositions.”

With that process in mind, brands can create products that both meet their sustainability goals and resonate with their company and consumer culture — allowing them to make environmentally responsible choices while staying true to their company ethos.

The second panel was moderated by Jesse Henry, founder and CEO at Heartland; and featured Sasha Calder, Head of Impact at Geno; Priti Pharkya, SVP at Geno’s Future Origins project; and Garrett Benisch, co-founder at OurCarbon. From the challenges to the critical importance of transitioning to next-gen materials by integrating them into everyday products, the panelists broke down how their companies are dealing with this often overwhelming topic.

One aspect of that is understanding where your materials came from and how you can improve the process. Geno, a company specializing in the development of commercial, biobased processes to produce commonly used chemicals — for everything from textiles to personal-care products — offers assistance to brands seeking comprehensive insights into the intricacies of their supply chains and, more importantly, the means to discover superior, traceable solutions. While it may appear that sustainability takes center stage for these brands, the true focal point lies in enhancing the resilience of their supply chains to shareholders.

“For these large brands, biomaterials is not the highlight,” Calder said. “The most important thing is that it signals supply chain resilience.”

Collaboration is also key to moving the needle towards sustainable materials. Future Origins partners with Geno alongside industry giants including Unilever, Kao and L’Oreal — pooling resources to drive meaningful environmental and social change. Going beyond sustainability, the partnership focuses on mitigating business risk. With a current focus on how to replace palm oil, which often leads to deforestation, Future Origins recognizes that this shift is not only a moral imperative but a strategic business necessity.

“Natural resources are limited,” Pharkya asserted. “If companies want to grow their business sustainability, they need to invest in alternative solutions to ensure growth.”

In a competitive landscape dominated by massive industries, the key lies in forging strong partnerships and fostering collaboration across the entire supply chain, including vital partnerships like Geno and other major brands.

Finding value in what would otherwise be waste is another angle of next-gen materials. For instance, OurCarbon creates a carbon-based material crafted from wastewater solids that were diverted and transformed. Unlike typical carbon-offsetting schemes, which primarily deal with curtailing carbon emissions at the source, OurCarbon embraces the concept of insetting — which entails introducing a material into the product itself that tangibly lowers its carbon footprint in a quantifiable and measurable manner. By targeting waste materials of minimal value — such as, in OurCarbon’s case, industrial biosolids (sewage) — removing the toxins and repurposing it into a substance such as ink or concrete, the previously “waste” material's worth increases significantly.

The discourse throughout the workshop highlighted a shift in the materials industry. These next-generation materials are purposefully engineered to be both sustainable and high-performing, challenging conventional processes and materials and fortifying supply chains against risks. This approach will require the industry's collective resolve to chart a path toward a more sustainable and resilient future, where materials meet not just performance standards but also environmental and ethical imperatives.

The future of packaging: Challenges and key directions for innovation

L-R: Nicole Rycroft, Paula Alexander, Matthew Mayes and Michael Sands

As moderator Nicole Rycroft — founder and Executive Director of environmental NGO Canopy — pointed out at the start of a Wednesday afternoon panel on the future of packaging, the complexity of the subject begs for the mantra “progress — not perfection nor paralysis.”

With the significant acceleration in sustainable packaging initiatives, Paula Alexander — Senior Director of Sustainability at Burt's Bees — opened the discussion on the subject by stating, “It's an exciting time to be in this space, because consumers are looking for it — and we’re starting to be able to provide it.”

While there’s no silver bullet for packaging innovation, Alexander said Burt's Bees' sustainable packaging standard has acted as a guiding compass — helping shape its packaging designs to strike a balance between functionality, aesthetics and sustainability. The standard encompasses precise thresholds with a material hierarchy: the primary objective is not to produce packaging unless absolutely necessary, followed by minimizing it to the greatest extent possible, and then a list of preferred packaging types with the best end-of-life solution. With the rapid evolution in this field, the standard has been updated every two years. Even as Burt’s Bees achieves certain goals and introduces products in packaging with substantial levels of PCR (post-consumer recycled) content, there is still a transitional phase known as the "sizzle and scale" where the product is initially offered at a premium price until it can be scaled.

For Matthew Mayes, co-founder & COO of Sway — one of three startups scaling seaweed-based alternatives to plastic film through the just-launched Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Accelerator — the challenge is identifying the brands willing to collaborate and facilitate the necessary line time for iterative development. Michael Sands, co-founder/CEO of Smile Compostable Solutions, delved headfirst into his company’s innovation journey to produce a compostable coffee pod — a particularly complicated product that required becoming experts in compostability and unexpected partnerships with filter companies, ink companies and lid companies; culminating in a similarly intricate sales process to bring the product to market. While the composting infrastructure in the US has improved significantly in recent years, ubiquitous access and acceptability to composting facilities are still a barrier.

Amid the significant progress in packaging, with both successes and setbacks, it is vital to remember that the packaging is not the hero — the product itself will be most important for consumers. At the same time, Alexander emphasized the importance of not being overly precious about how much information you put on the package. Mayes highlighted how Sway being radically transparent with followers has inspired trust and helped bring them along on the sustainable packaging journey.

The panelists agreed we must be okay with continuous improvement, and recognize and avoid “false solutions” that substitute one environmental disaster for another (i.e., reduce plastic pollution but inadvertently increase deforestation). In conclusion, Rycroft’s point about progress — rather than perfection — is a collective effort involving both manufacturers and consumers.

Biobased materials serving superior lifecycle sustainability performance

L-R: Sarah Douglis (moderator), Eastman's Katherine Hofmann, IFF's Renee Henze, UBQ's Patricia Mishic O'Brien and Geno's Sasha Calder

Another Wednesday afternoon session featured presentations from Eastman, Geno, International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) and UBQ Materials on the latest advancements in materials science and how they are being used to create more sustainable products — everything from pineapple handbags to thermoplastic waste tables.

Eastman, for example, has a long history of materials innovation — dating back over 100 years. The company is a leading producer of cellulose-based materials — which are used in everything from coatings and packaging additives to soaps, textiles and homecare products. Eastman recently introduced two new products: Aventa — a fully compostable, cellulose-acetate product for foodservice utensils and packaging; and Naia — a fully biodegradable textile fiber.

The panelists were excited about the advancements that biotech was enabling, and highlighted the natural power of enzymes and new cellulose products for a range of applications that relied historically on more carbon-intensive chemistry. The group collectively questioned whether the emerging and more highly regulated innovation environment, particularly in Europe, was catalyzing or slowing innovation.