UK startup Shellworks is setting new standards for the green packaging industry.
A fully sustainable packaging plastic must meet three criteria. First, it should be made from renewable feedstocks. Second, it should be compostable. Third, it should be recyclable – once melted down, it will have similar performance power to virgin materials. However, developing this dream bio-packaging is a tough ask. Of the roughly 2 million tonnes of bioplastics produced yearly, very few tick all these boxes.
Shellworks’ flagship Shellmer material offers perhaps the most sustainable bio-based packaging plastic on the market today. It hits all three criteria for the dream bio-plastic. Shellmer can be worked into thin films that are immediately soluble in hot water. This material is so eco-friendly that it can be poured into soil as fertiliser at the end of its life.
Shellmer is made from the biopolymer Chitosan, which is chemically similar to cellulose. Chitosan is derived from a natural substance called chitin that is found in many animals, particularly the shells of crustaceans. Shellworks extracts theirs from seafood waste, meaning that their renewable feedstock is also circular.
Shellworks was founded in 2020 by Imperial College graduates Insiya Jafferjee, Amir Afshar and Edward Jones. The three had met on the Innovation Design Engineering master’s programme offered jointly by the Royal College of Art and Imperial College. Each shared a passion for engineering and design, particularly within bio-based technologies. The company began when the three students decided to set their minds to the problem of ocean pollution. They developed a machine to manufacture environmentally benign cosmetics and food packaging using seafood shells and vinegar.
Shellworks came into being when their innovation won the 2020 Venture catalyst challenge. The company remains at its proof-of-concept stage, having just ended a six month residency for startup development at Workerversity. However, they have attracted a total of $1.4 million in investment and have already placed their first batch of products on the market.
Vivomer is their latest and most innovative packaging material. It is created using the fat of microorganisms found in the soil and sea. Once used, Vivomer is easily metabolised by these same microbes so that it can be thrown away like ordinary food waste. Shellworks also make customisable, off-the-shelf compostable containers for lipstick, creams, food, and oils. All their products are made in-house at their facility in London.
Shellworks aims to make products that can replace primary plastics entirely, right down to the aesthetic versatility offered by synthetic materials. Their bio-based plastics rival conventional plastics for offering various degrees of thickness, stiffness, opacity, and colours. Shellworks offer natural dyes that work with their bio-based materials in a multitude of shades, from bright yellows to vibrant blues and blacks. Their Instagram curates an eye-catching array of multi-coloured pots, bags, and wrapping films as well as experimental samples showcasing the diverse textures that can be achieved with Chitosan.
With this emphasis on design, it is not surprising that Shellworks is attracting attention beyond the plastics industry. Earlier this year, the Vitra Design Museum Gallery displayed their products as part of an exhibition on the history and future of plastic.
What’s wrong with bio-based plastics?
Shellworks’ self-professed aim is to ‘make plastic waste a thing of the past’. In pursuit of this goal, they are setting new sustainability standards in the bio-based plastics industry.
By definition, all bio-based plastics hit the first criteria for the ideal sustainable plastic: renewability. However, many perform no better than their synthetic petroleum-based counterparts on biodegradability. Currently, half the bioplastics market is made up of completely non-biodegradable products. These include bio-based Polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyamide (PA), and polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
Other bio-based plastics, such as PLA, are biodegradable but only under specific conditions. These must be processed at specially equipped facilities that are found in only a fraction of cities around the world. With limited access to specialist treatment services, bio-based materials tend to end up in the natural environment where they pose the same risks as oil-based plastics to animals, plants, soil quality, and ocean habitats. Bio-based plastics that do reach specialist facilities still require thermal decomposition processes that consume huge amounts of energy.
Then there is recyclability. Biopolymers on the market like bio-PE, bio-PP, bio-Pet, and bio-PA may be made from renewable sources but they share the same chemical structure and composition as petroleum-based plastics. This means that they cannot be reused.
All of Shellworks’ bio-based plastics are compostable, a rare selling point in an industry that rarely takes into account the entire product life-cycle. Compostability makes a stronger claim for sustainability than biodegradability. It refers to materials that can be broken down by common microbes into non-toxic compounds. This overcomes the problem posed by even fully biodegradable plastics that degrade into toxic, lingering compounds. Shellworks’ products are also easy to melt down and remould into new products.
The dream bio-plastic
Chitin offers an exciting new solution for the next generation of bio-based plastics because it is so abundant. After cellulose, it is the most common biopolymer in the world. Apart from seashells, they are found in insect exoskeletons and the cell wall of fungi. There are various kinds of chitin that differ in their mechanical properties depending on their natural source and how it is purified. Importantly, it can easily be broken down by the enzymes found in fungi, bacteria, archaea, rotifers, and algae. Natural carbon and nitrogen cycles easily absorb the byproducts.
Research into chitin and chitosan has been ongoing for seven decades but the material has not been commercialised until recently. The scale of production is still small. In 2019, around 210 tonnes of chitosan were produced compared to 2.1 million tonnes of total bioplastics. However, the market for this biopolymer is primed for growth. Applications for this versatile material do not end at packaging. It has been made into powders, fibres, films, beads, sponges, gels and solutions. Already, it is used in wound treatment for its antimicrobial and haemostatic properties. This substance offers a viable replacement for many applications where we use petroleum-based plastics.
Early interest in bioplastics centred on obtaining cost-effective, high-performance biopolymers from renewable biomass without much heed to end-of-life sustainability. Despite their limitations, this ‘first wave’ of bioplastics has undeniably weaned the packaging industry’s reliance on oil. They tend to be greener than their petroleum-based counterparts simply because they avoid non-renewable feedstocks. Now, however, it is time to make gains across the entire life cycle of plastics.
Some industrial applications require plastics that can withstand ambient or high temperatures for extended periods. However, packaging is a different story. Wrappers, containers, and lids intended for single, time-limited use should be the low-hanging fruit of the sustainability transition. Given the amount of waste generated by the global industry, finding bio-based packaging that biodegrade, can be recycled, or both would eliminate a huge portion of plastic pollution.
Shellworks is perhaps the first company to take chitin out of the laboratory and onto the bio-packaging market. They are now developing machines that can process the substance on a mass scale. Their R&D pipeline is also full of exciting new products: anti-bacterial blister packs, carrier bags for food, and self-fertilising plant pots. To truly make a dent in the bioplastics industry, the team acknowledges that they must ‘invent a whole new ecosystem’, a daunting challenge for a small startup.