Algae has gained traction as an eco-friendly bio-feedstock for many packaging and consumer applications. We take stock of the industry across several continents.
Algae bioplastics companies scaling cultivation
Algae began attracting attention as a biofuel in the 1970s. While the sector grew rapidly in the 2000s, its gains were largely wiped out by the 2008 financial crash. Since then, investors have turned to other high-value chemical derivatives. Among them were bioplastics.
Algae bioplastics are an emerging technology, and the sector is dominated by young start-ups at the development or validation stages. 2019 saw a bumper crop of startups in this space, with Biopac (Indonesia), Marine Innovation (Korea) Mercel (UK), and Rhodomaxx (Indonesia) among them
Of the 2019 entrants, Asian companies Biopac and Marine innovation have made rapid headway in commercialisation. Indonesian Biopac markets a range of consumer food packaging and cutlery solutions, including coffee sachets, straws, edible wrapping for fast food, personal care items and pet poop bags.
Biopac’s packaging composts in under 10 years without the need for special industrial processing, making it ideal for packaging applications that demand medium-term durability. They can also be coloured, printed, heat-sealed, and adjusted for thickness.
Southeast Asian companies hold the edge over Western counterparts in their ready access to a cheap supply of feedstock and Biopac take advantage of Indonesia’s immense seaweed cultivation sector by sourcing directly from local seaweed farmers; cooperatives.
Biopac’s sights are set on the international market. UK company Lifestyle Packaging have brought Biopac’s materials to the UK for the first time. Working with its clients in the CBD, vapign, fragrance, and personal care industries, Lifestyle Packaging is customising Biopac’s seaweed materials to meet their application needs.
South Korea’s Marine Innovation is another 2019 startup. This is a social venture supported by SK Innovation, an intermediate holding company of the Korea’s SK Group which deals in petroleum, alternative energy, and oil exploration. The company creates food packaging, cutlery, and stationary items from red algae.
Like Biopac, Marine Innovation has international ambitions both in Asia and further afield. In 2019, it won a grant from the Innovation Impact Grant Programme which allowed the company to exhibit at the Dubai Expo in October 2021. Here, they showcased their containers to foreign investors and in 2022 signed a three-year contract to supply French brand ARGO with plates and cups.
The company is also looking abroad for their sourcing, contracting with an Indonesian partner to import their seaweed byproducts and actively seeking more partnerships with farms in Morocco and Vietnam.
Established startups in Europe
An earlier tranche of seaweed bioplastics companies, founded between 2014 and 2016, are now attaining maturity. UK-based Notpla is one of them. Founded in 2014, the company is targeting the petroleum-based consumer packaging industry with a range of compostable seaweed-based materials.
NotPla has already attracted $20, 300, 000 in funding and is gaining rapid traction after completing their production validation phase. It sources most of their seaweed from European suppliers and where possible, from the infant UK seaweed farming sector. Their main UK supplier is Wales-based farm Cay-Y-Mor, with whom they have entered a partnership.
One of the oldest European companies working in seaweed biochemicals is France’s Eranova, which source their wild stock from biomass stranded on beaches. It produces four types of seaweed-based polymer resins using species in the Ulva family. The resins are designed for various applications, from food bags to construction materials, and comes with differing degrees of decomposability. Some are totally biodegradable under natural conditions while others are industrially compostable and recyclable.
In 2022, Eranova’s scaling ambition came one step closer as the company secured a deal to construct a 400 ton per year pre-industrial pilot plant in Port-Saint-Louis-du-Rhône, southern France. The company selected the port city as it grants them ready access to export routes to the entire Mediterranean basin. If the demonstration plant operates to plan, the company will open a €63 million, 30, 000-ton capacity plant in the area.
Upcoming seaweed bioplastics from India
Having founded in 2010, India’s Sea6 is one of the more mature companies working in the seaweed chemicals space and was among the first entrants on the post-2008 scene. So far, it has attracted $20 million in funding and is already a global leader in seaweed-based chemicals. Now, it is planning to launch a bioplastics range.
Sea6 is exemplary of seaweed bioplastic’s new wave. Its focus is on scaling in cultivation and manufacture as well as research into advanced proprietary techniques for biochemical production. It is firmly embedded in India’s tech innovation ecosystem, founded at the Indian Institute of Technology by three biotechnology graduates and the former R&D head of Biocon. The company is now situated in India’s leading life science cluster, the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platform.
A key part of Sea6’s success has been a diverse product portfolio that valorises seaweed biomass for different applications. Sea6 plan already offer a range of seaweed-based agrichemicals and their imminent move into biodegradable bioplastics pitched at the single use packaging market will cement their multi-product model. Their incoming bioplastics product line will feature seaweed-based biodegradable film to replace petroleum-based bags. The company has applied for 7 patents for its bioplastics portfolio and has already been granted four of these.
To facilitate their entry into the bioplastics markets, however, they will first have to reduce cultivation costs. In 2022, the company received $9 million in funding for just this purpose. They will spend the money on introducing machine harvesting and seeding into their cultivation. The company believe their proprietary sea harvesting technology, SeaCombine, will finally push ocean farming efficiency closer to levels reached by land-based agriculture post-mechanisation.
Sea6 is one of the few seaweed chemicals companies to work across the supply chain from cultivation to marketing. They are the only fully integrated tropical sea agriculture and seaweed-manufacturing company in the world, making them a model for seaweed biochemicals scaling elsewhere.
Scale-up projects in Asia
Asia has been the historic centre of algae aquaculture. Although the industry here has long been geared towards the food market, there is now interest in developing algae cultivation and processing for the industrial sectors.
Making scaled high-value seaweed bioplastics will depend on there being a reliable and cost-effective high volume supply of cultivated seaweed. In 2022 came a major new initiative to meet this prerequisite for scaling a reality in the Asian industrial seaweed sector. Matsuri (Microalgae Towards Sustainable & Resilient Industry) brings together 35 Japanese companies and aims to build what would become one of the world’s largest algae farms in Malaysia. Singapore-based Chitose Bio Evolution Pte. Ltd, will be responsible for constructing the facility, which is expected to produce 140, 000 tons of microalgae per year. Already, Chitose Bio Evolution is looking at building facilities in other parts of Southeast Asia as well as the Middle East.
Matsuri, whose project participants include oil refiner Eneos Holdings Inc. and Honda Motor Co., demonstrates why large cross-sector, public-private initiative will be critical for building a viable seaweed production and processing ecosystem. The algae mega-farm in Malaysia will be funded by Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization. Chitose chief executive Tomohiro Fujita said that the group aims not just to create an algae company but a whole industry.
Asia is known for its large, highly developed seaplant cultivation sector but wild stock is now the centre of a major new state-backed bioplastics development project within South Korea. The government there has inaugurated a project to valorise sargassum honeri, a highly invasive brown macroalgae common around the coasts of Northeast Asia. South Korea’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries stated in June 2022 that over the next four years, the project will develop technologies for producing itaconic acid, 3-Hydroxypropionic acid, and lactic acid. These are fundamental ingredients in the manufacture of bioplastics and other biochemicals.
Scale-up projects in Europe
The EU has also been encouraging the seaweed biochemicals sector through private-public projects to refine scalable cultivation and manufacturing techniques. The 2017-2021 project GENIALG brought together European biorefineries and seaweed cultivation experts from six countries to design high-yielding cultivation systems. Their emphasis was on two high biomass speices: the brown S. latissimi and the green seaweed U. rigida. In 2021, the project published a summary of biorefinery best practices targeted at private actors looking to develop the seaweed economy.
Another major seaweed bioeconomy project in the EU, MACRO CASCADE, ran from 2016 to 2021. It worked on a proof of concept for simultaneous processing techniques to turn cultivated macro-algae into diverse high value products. In 2022, it was awarded a €9 million Horizon Europe grant to scale seaweed production and market applications across Europe over the next four years.
Plastisea, a Nordic research and development consortium funded to the value of 1, 454, 160 euros, is currently developing novel bioplastics materials with ‘competitive structural properties and biodegradability’ from wild and cultivated brown algae. Its project partners include Norwegian companies Seaweed Energy Solutions and B’ZEOS, which specialises in seaweed bioplastics.
The EU’s AlgaeDemo project has been demonstrating sustainable mariculture techniques for a 1.4 hectare plot of seaweed in the North Sea. The project is trailing Autonomous Underwater Vehicles for monitoring growth. Seaweed cultivation is an all-important area of the bioplastics value chain and operates at a far smaller scale in Europe than in Asia. 68 percent of the European seaweed harvest is still taken from the wild while 32 percent of European macroalgae products are cultivated, with France, Ireland, and Spain the leading producers. For European operations to scale, this ratio will have to change. Cultivation not only avoids damaging wild ecosystems with overharvesting, but it is also essential to establish a reliable supply of biomass at consistent quality.
Demand for seaweed-based solutions will heighten as countries take measures against single-use petroleum plastics. Australia banned plastic bags in 2018 while India and the UK have banned plastic straws, cutlery, and food packaging. In France, fruit and vegetables are no longer packaged in petroleum-based materials. A poll of over 20, 000 people revealed that 80 percent of people in Latin America, China, and India agree that SUPs should be banned. To meet this demand and bring down costs, more scale-up projects are needed to bring upstream processing startups and cultivators into their industrial phase.