Product, Service & Design Innovation
Mezcal, Crab Shells Fuel Circular Solutions for Food Waste, Pollution, Packaging

Inventive circular solutions to the world’s most pressing problems continue to stream in, with entrepreneurs and researchers across North America uncovering creative new ways to transform food waste into drivers of sustainable change.

Mexico is quickly establishing itself as a hub of sustainable innovation as forward-thinking entrepreneurs tap into the region’s rich cultural traditions to develop 21st-century solutions for global challenges such as food waste and CO2 emissions. Mexico City-based startup Suema recently began transforming discarded prickly pears into renewable energy and now Sombra Mezcal is gearing up to shift the mezcal value chain towards a more sustainable model.

Founded by former environmental lawyer Richard Betts, Sombra aims to maintain the fundamental aspects of mezcal production that are essential to its identity and flavor, while eliminating practices with negative social and environmental impacts.

The company has introduced interventions across each level of production, from the sourcing of agave straight through to the distillation process, streamlining a once fragmented and non-transparent process.

Sombra has struck up purchasing agreements with growers that source trees and agave from land managed by the government, ensuring the company is privy to how its key ingredients are grown. With each tree that is cut down during materials sourcing, three more are planted. The company has also eliminated animal labor in the production process by installing a solar-powered electric mill at its Santiago Matatlan, Mexico distillery. A rainwater harvesting system feeds the agave fermentation process and the leftover agave fibers and liquid byproducts are now being used to create adobe bricks.

“I see our factory as tradition improved,” Betts told Fast Company.

Meanwhile, shellfish continue to make a splash in the emerging circular economy — researchers at the Pennsylvania State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences, with funding from the US Department of Agriculture, have developed a coating derived from the exoskeletons of crustaceans that could be used to create an alternative to traditional plastic packaging.

The research team has recently filed a patent for the coating, which is the result of a process that combines carboxymethyl cellulose pulp from wood or cotton and chitosan. The duo creates a strong, durable bond that could give plastic a run for its money. In the trials, in which Southern Champion Tray paperboard was coated with the new material, the coating demonstrated strong performance as a moisture barrier, though the material is not entirely waterproof.

“These results show that PPC-based materials may be competitive barrier alternatives to synthetic polymers for many volume commercial applications,” the researchers stated in their findings, published in Green Chemistry.

If brought to scale, researchers believe the coating could play an instrumental role in reducing the amount of petroleum-based plastic used in food packaging and the approximately 14.5 million tons of plastic packaging that end up in municipal solid waste streams each year.

“We are trying to take the last step now and make a real impact on the world and get industry people to stop using plastics and instead use these natural materials,” said Jeffrey Catchmark, Professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

The science is there, but now it’s a matter of getting industry to buy in. Catchmark admits that price could be a potential barrier: “The challenge is, to do that, you’ve got to be able to do it in a way that is manufacturable and it has to be less expensive than plastic … when you make a change to something that is greener or sustainable, you really have to pay for the switch. So, it has to be less expensive in order for companies to actually gain something from it. This creates a problem for sustainable materials — an inertia that has be overcome with a lower cost.”


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