In the global bid to curb our plastic production, manufacturers are increasingly turning to the natural world for organic, sustainable alternatives. Created out of everything from mushrooms to agricultural waste, innovators are proving that the solutions are at our fingertips, and our reliance on petroleum-based plastics may soon be at its end.
Our oceans are proving an abundant source for packaging alternatives – and companies are turning to ocean-based plant fibres to create biodegradable containers and wrappers. One such company is multinational packaging firm DS Smith, which last week announced it would be exploring the use of seaweed across its packaging network, in a move that the company says marks an industry first. As well as researching the use of seaweed fiber as a raw material for its paper and packaging products, the firm will also be investigating its potential use as a coating for food produce. This novel application would act as a replacement for the single-use plastic typically used to protect these supermarket items. We spoke with Giancarlo Maroto, managing director of paper, forestry and recycling for DS Smith North America about the scheme, and what’s next for the company.
DS Smith’s Greener Focus
The manufacturer’s latest announcement sits within its wider aim to decrease its carbon footprint and bring greener solutions to the fore, as consumer demand makes sustainability a priority.
“Recycling and sustainability is higher on the agenda than it has ever been before,” says Maroto. “Customers and consumers increasingly make clear that they want sustainable packaging that is easy to recycle and has a minimal impact on the environment.”
DS Smith intends to be at the forefront of this shift, gearing up to deploy novel seaweed-based materials in a range of its packaging products, including cartons, paper wrappers and cardboard trays, in addition to as a protective barrier on food produce. The seaweed will be sourced from commercial suppliers and farmers, with further research from DS Smith expected to help determine whether brown, green or red seaweed is best suited for packaging purposes. In addition to exploring seaweed as an alternative material, DS Smith will also be investigating the uses of natural fibres such as straw, hemp and cotton, as well as less conventional sources such as cocoa shells.
“In May this year, we announced that we would boost our research into alternative fibers to accelerate the work we are doing in the circular economy as part of our five-year $140 million R&D program,” Maroto says. “This includes the creation of a new breakthrough technologies hub, new materials development to replace plastics and a pilot to gauge G-force shock in home delivery packaging.”
By 2023, the group aims to manufacture entirely reusable or recyclable packaging and transition to 100% renewable packaging throughout its supply chain by 2030 – integrating alternative fibres into its operations wherever possible.
“The Circular Economy is at the heart of DS Smith’s Now and Next strategy, focusing on closing the loop through better design, protecting natural resources by making the most of every fiber, reducing waste and pollution through circular solutions and equipping people to lead the transition to a circular economy” Matoro adds.
Calls to close the loop with packaging are indeed rising, with many companies fast approaching the 2025 milestone many have set for cutting back on single-use products. While the pandemic has delayed certain projects geared towards this goal, consumer demand still points in this direction, and DS Smith joins a number of companies turning to seaweed as a means of curbing plastic production.
From ocean to shore
While land-based materials such as sugarcane, corn, and other biomass offer organic plastic alternatives, concern has arisen over this potentially causing competition between crops for food vs crops for plastics. Given our growing population and subsequent growing food demand, land use has become a topical issue, and ensuring our transition away from petroleum-based plastics does not trigger other issues (such as a food crisis) is vital.
Looking to our oceans is therefore a solution chosen by many, and seaweed is the material of choice.
“Seaweed has the potential to be a sustainable fiber and raw material source with a low ecological footprint that is easily recyclable and naturally biodegradable,” says Maroto. “It also has the potential to be less energy intensive in the production process with fewer chemicals used to extract the fibers.”
Unlike land-based plants, seaweed doesn’t need fertiliser to grow and it also doesn’t take up increasingly precious land to be cultivated. Rather, it can be grown offshore and so avoid competition with food crops. In addition, when used to package food, seaweed keeps the produce fresh for longer than plastic does and so provides a solution to the mounting problem of food waste.
Due to these factors, the market for seaweed is anticipated to boom in the coming years.
“The European seaweed industry alone is predicted to be worth almost $11 billion by 2030, generating some 115,000 jobs,” says Maroto. “More broadly, the European Commission has recently launched a consultation on a sustainable EU algae sector to understand its potential to produce food, feed, pharmaceuticals, bioplastics, fertilisers and biofuels.”
In particular, Indonesia is emerging as a leading market for seaweed. The region is one of the largest seaweed producers in the world, and the leading global producer of red seaweed. Evoware, a sustainable packaging company in Jakarta has been creating food and other product packaging derived from seaweed since 2016, demonstrating the materials’ efficacy as a packaging alternative that is not only biodegradable but also edible.
With global regulations increasingly pushing a sustainable packaging agenda, we’ll doubtless be seeing companies following the same path as DS Smith, bringing alternative fibres to supply chains and one day making fossil fuel-based products a thing of the past. The potential of seaweed as a plastic alternative has already been seen in projects around the world, but it is only through widespread uptake that significant change will be made. While COVID-19 may have put a dent in efforts to achieve this, businesses are switching back into gear, and schemes such as DS Smith’s are only set to expand.