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Waste Not
This Startup Shows That Tackling the Plastic Crisis May Not Be a Stretch

Great Wrap aims to be a plug-and-play replacement for film wraps for both home and business. It replaces petroleum-based films with a bio-based waste product that, unlike most other bio-based polymers, completely decomposes in within three months.

The problem of plastic pollution has now permeated the mainstream consciousness; we even have a whole month dedicated to increasing awareness and action to eliminate it. Corporates continue to band together to try and clean up their collective mess; but a lot of the most promising solutions are coming from startups and grassroots efforts — with innovators from Finland to Africa finding success applying their own approaches to solving materials and pollution challenges around the world.

Another one poised to make its mark is Australia’s Great Wrap, which has developed a fully compostable stretch wrap made from potato waste — addressing several of our most intractable challenges (plastic waste, food waste and soil fertility) in one go.

Founded by husband-and-wife duo Julia and Jordy Kay — who come from architecture and winemaking backgrounds, respectively — the vision for Great Wrap arose when the couple recognized the sheer impact plastic waste was having on the land.

Great Wrap recently launched with a household cling wrap and industrial-grade pallet wrap in Australia; the company just launched the consumer version in the US in August, to help households minimize petro-plastic use and promote composting at home. In July, the company closed an $11 million round of Series A funding.

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Great Wrap aims to be a plug-and-play replacement for film wraps for both home and business. It replaces petroleum with a bio-based waste product that, unlike most other bio-based polymers out there, completely decomposes in a backyard compost bin within three months. The Great Wrap team envisions a petro-plastic free world within ten years, starting with a major contributor to plastic pollution: pallet wrap.

As Julia points out: “Every single object in the room around you at one point was wrapped in petroleum-based plastic.”

Planting local roots

The cling wrap is currently made from Australian-sourced cooking oil and potato waste, and imported tapioca and cassava. Great Wrap now also has a direct relationship with a US potato company and a biopolymer supplier in Thailand, which has since become an investor.

The company recently moved into a 12,000-sqm facility in Tullamarine, Australia, which has the capacity to produce 30,000 metric tons of compostable stretch wrap by 2030. The move to the larger facility is phase one of a transition to total vertical integration — allowing Great Wrap to source, process and produce its compostable wrap from local Australian food waste alone, drastically cutting shipping-related emissions from imported products. Phase two involves the construction of a new biorefinery to scale production, as well as the launch of a direct-to-consumer product and an additional manufacturing facility in the United States.

Polyhydroxyalkanoates: The holy grail of bio-based materials science

Bio-based plastics are a positive step, but they are problematic in one key aspect: They are too chemically similar to fossil-based plastics, which makes biodegradability and recycling a challenge.

“There are bioplastics that perform just like plastic — but they perform the same in the environment, as well,” Jordy explains.

For the Kays and many others, Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) could be the answer.

PHAs are a large and ever-growing group of biopolymers derived from bacteria that can be used to create many different types of plastic. Most importantly, PHA is completely biodegradable in most environments, making it a more attractive replacement for single-use plastics. PHAs enable a complete closed-loop system, resulting in minimal impact on the environment; and if they fall out of the loop and enter the soil or water, they completely compost within months into safe, soil-building compounds.

Though PHA doesn’t have the ROI chops yet to take the market by storm, Great Wrap and a slew of other companies are convinced it’s only a matter of time before the biopolymer takes center stage in the materials-science world. Until that day, the Kays are rolling out their existing compostable, thermoplastic wrap to help warm people to the idea of compostable packaging.

Great Wrap's current compostable wrap product is a beachhead for the end-goal of PHA ubiquity. The Kays say they will continue to use potato waste as a feedstock for PHA as they scale but will expand to other feedstocks to meet growing demand for PHA. This could include seaweed, biowastes, wastewater and forestry waste.

Potential aside, PHA is no panacea. It’s not commercially feasible in widespread markets (yet); and although PHA eventually decomposes nearly everywhere, decomposition rate depends on thickness, density and other factors such as soil or water type and temperature. What’s more, some applications may require added fillers, compromising PHA’s ability to completely break apart in the environment.

“There will still be challenges faced as PHA scales on making those thicker plastics; and that’s why recycling is always going to play a role,” Jordy said. “There’s still a lot of work that has to be done.”

Crisis averted: Rethinking the role of plastic

Great Wrap’s existing compostable, thermoplastic and PHA ambitions are a great step; but the Kays admit Great Wrap can’t singlehandedly solve the plastic crisis. To do that, there must be a shift in the public’s relationship with plastic — from a single-use to a closed-loop mindset.

The holy grail doesn’t have to be within reach in order to start clearing a space for it: The Kays say they went to market before fully developing their PHA line because people need to shift their perceptions of plastic now, and Great Wrap can start this shift by proving the concept with a fully biodegradable plastic wrap.

In the meantime, Great Wrap is building demand through education and D2C outreach; and pilot trials with Australia’s largest supermarket and a burger chain are underway. The company’s key strategy is building out the demand pipeline along with R&D, helping to build a receptive market once products hit the shelves.

With PHA and other truly compostable biopolymers, plastic can theoretically offer net-positive benefits to people and planet — such as emissions avoidance from fossil feedstocks kept in the ground and food waste diverted from landfills and into biopolymers.

Great Wrap’s current and future products hold great value not just from an emissions-avoidance standpoint (less food waste in landfills = fewer climate-changing methane emissions), but also for its potential to build soil organic carbon.

“Composting and returning that carbon matter to the soil has a deep and profound impact on climate change,” Jordy said.

Critically important to rapidly scaling Great Wrap is its plug-and-play capability: companies don’t have to change infrastructure or practices to make the switch from petroleum-based films. And Great Wrap’s evolving B2B take-back program will help ensure its film goes back to the soil or is recycled. And even if the film escapes into the environment, it will biodegrade within months.

The Kays foresee a time when a new business ecosystem emerges, plying its capital to create satisfactory replacements for fossil plastics — ones readily compostable in the land and sea.

“This will come in time, with each successive commercial success of businesses such as ours,” Julia said. “You can’t do this at a competitive rate on a small scale. There has to be mass-market adoption, so we can see some really great products and innovation in PHA at a large scale.”

As more and more governments, C-suites, boards and shareholders resolve to phase out virgin fossil plastics, companies such as Great Wrap hope to be a bridge to an ever-expanding array of options of completely biodegradable biopolymers.