Published 5 months ago.
About a 7 minute read.
Image: Cruz Foam
By upcycling coconut husks and shrimp shells, Fortuna Cools and Cruz Foam are diverting agricultural waste from landfill and offering circular polystyrene alternatives that match its performance.
Expanded polystyrene (EPS), most commonly known by the Styrofoam™ brand of the material, has been a go-to packaging
solution for over 50 years. Industry has come to depend on its durability and
light weight; and especially, its temperature-control, water-resistance and
shock-absorption capabilities — it is ideal keeping perishables fresh and cool
during transport. As such, it is one of the most widely used plastics —
predominantly used for packaging (40 percent) and insulation. Every year, more
than 14 million tons of polystyrene is produced and over 2 million tons go to
landfill — a whopping 25-35
percent of all
landfill waste is from polystyrene products.
And polystyrene food and beverage
are one of the main offenders of marine pollution; it never fully biodegrades —
instead, crumbling into thousands of puffed fragments that drift through our
waters, killing and harming marine life.
Thankfully, two companies have found a way to recreate polystyrene’s functionality
with upcycled agricultural waste — creating viable, circular and sustainable
alternatives to this versatile, plastic foam.
Image credit: Fortuna Cools
Philippines-based Fortuna Cools is on a
mission to replace plastic foam with natural fibers once and for all.
Understanding that the future must be built with better materials, co-founder
and CEO David Cutler — who studied
design at Stanford University, and has worked in development and consulting
for startups and NGOs across Asia — and his team developed the Nutshell
Cooler insulated with coconut husks, a
byproduct of the coconut oil
“Coconut husks evolved to protect fresh coconut meat from the hot tropical sun —
the original cooler. These coconut husks are burned as waste by the billions
today; so, when we process and use them for insulation instead, we keep CO2 out
of the atmosphere and plastic out of the landfill — or the ocean,” Cutler
explains to Sustainable Brands®.
Fortuna Cools sources its coconut husks from four provinces across the
Philippines — its supplier network includes over 1,000 small-scale farming
families — and plans to expand across the country and around the region. To
date, the company has turned 600,000 coconut husks into Nutshell Coolers,
sustainable insulation and larger coolers for a variety of industrial uses. All of its products (which are made from recycled
polyester) are insulated with
biodegradable coconut fiber; when it does eventually break down, the insulation
makes for a great mulch, growing medium, or compost amendment.
“Customers range from vegetable traders in the Philippines to picnickers in
Central Park. If it’s good enough for a fish vendor in the 100-degree
Manila heat, it’s good enough for a grocery run in Seattle. Part of the
fun in competing with and replacing plastic foam is seeing all the different
ways that people are starting to adopt coconut-fiber insulation — the market is
just so big,” Cutler says.
Fortuna Cools is also devoted to supporting local farmers and communities.
Upcycling coconut husks gives small-scale coconut farmers a new source of income
and has built a biomaterial ecosystem, providing jobs and research
opportunities. Cutler explains that the company was built with farmers and rural
communities from day one; and as they grow, these communities will benefit in
the form of extra income, new jobs and pride as their harvest is enjoyed and
appreciated around the world.
“We’re building the new standard for insulation in outdoor gear and packaging —
the thing people will expect to see inside coolers and shipping boxes the way
people expect good jackets to be Gore-Tex and takeout containers to be
today,” Cutler asserts. “We’ll have upcycling hubs in a handful of different
countries in five years — converting over a million coconut husks into Nutshell
products and insulation every year.”
Image credit: Cruz Foam
Founded in 2017 in Santa Cruz, California, Cruz
Foam stemmed from a research project by UC Santa
Cruz Engineering Professor Marco
Rolandi and graduate
researcher John Felts, when
they were both at the University of
Rolandi had been studying
specifically, ways to use naturally sourced materials for things such as
biomedical tools and plastics. When Felts started similar research on chitin
— the second most abundant biopolymer in the world; found in organisms including
plants, insects, mushrooms and crustacean
— and found that it showcased unique properties, particularly in its
strength-to-weight ratio, the two joined forces.
As ocean lovers and avid surfers, they both relocated to Santa Cruz to continue
their research — having identified an opportunity to make a bio-foam material to
replace the petroleum-based foam in surfboards. Felts and Rolandi quickly
realized that this regenerative material could have a greater impact beyond the
and transitioned their efforts to displace single-use plastics in the protective
packaging and cold-chain industries. Six years later, the pair has created a
unique, chitin-based patented bio-benign material that matches the technical
specs, insulative characteristics and protective qualities of petroleum-based
EPE (expanded polyethylene), all at a similar price point.
“Our chitin is primarily sourced from shrimp shells (the shrimp industry waste
that is usually sent to landfill) from sustainable fisheries that are
We chose to source our chitin from shrimp shells, because we saw unnecessary
waste going to landfill and knew we could divert that waste and give it a useful
second and third life,” CEO and co-founder Felts told SB.
Image credit: Dreamstime
To make Cruz Foam, the shrimp shells are treated with an alkaline solution —
removing proteins (including the protein that causes shellfish allergies) and
minerals. The remaining chitin is then further processed and de-acetylated,
“The magic of Cruz Foam and why we can ensure a frictionless transition lies in
the fact that our foam can be produced on existing extrusion manufacturing
equipment. The foam can be sold in a sheet/roll format and be die-cut, colored,
printed on, laminated and converted into limitless applications. We plan to
utilize toll manufacturing to produce our material nationally and
internationally,” Felts says.
Cruz Foam is working with key industry partners and organizations to support the
improvement of local packaging collection and disposal for the increasing number
of companies producing sustainable packaging. Many of its products are curbside
recyclable (the foam can be composted in backyards and industrial facilities;
and the packages with foam and cardboard are curbside recyclable — as the foam
dissolves in the cardboard repulping process), which is a more easily
understood and practiced
of disposal for mainstream consumers. For B2B applications, they recommend
collection/take-back and recycling, where possible.
“We understand that our society has a long way to go when it comes to waste
management, which is why we are constantly working with local and national
legislators to promote broadening accessibility to composting and recycling,”
Cruz Foam has raised over $18 million in funding — including from actors
Leonardo DiCaprio and Ashton Kutcher, who both serve as investors and
advisers. The company has already developed packaging for customers including
Farm Cottage Wines, Real Good
Fish, Venus Distilleries and Verve
Coffee; and in February, it landed its first
major partner, Atlantic
— which will help scale capacity by rolling out products made with Cruz Foam
later this year.
Through a lifecycle analysis, the company
estimates replacing polystyrene with products such as Cruz Foam (and other
waste-mitigating, biodegradable alternatives like it) would mitigate 17,000 tons
of CO2 per year.
“This year, we have successfully launched commercial products and are
introducing our innovative packaging solutions into multiple industries,” Felts
says. “Looking ahead to the next five years, our vision is to revolutionize the
packaging industry as a whole by promoting new materials like our own that
benefit the planet rather than harm it.
“The most cogent strategy to prevent future plastic pollution is to avoid virgin
plastic production from the outset. Our ultimate goal is to inspire companies
around the world to embrace a more circular model that contributes to a greener
Published Aug 31, 2023 2pm EDT / 11am PDT / 7pm BST / 8pm CEST
Scarlett Buckley is a London-based freelance sustainability writer with an MSc in Creative Arts & Mental Health.