Plastic waste: can nature provide the solution?

From fashion to packaging to industrial products, start-ups around the world are working to replace plastics with biodegradable materials. The market is booming, and investors see an opportunity for sustainable profits. Now the alternatives to plastic have to break into the mainstream.

Karsten Lemm, guest author
Tempo di lettura
5 minuto
In a shed, men process the fibres of the abacá plant.
Once used to make ship's ropes, baskets and hats, the tough fibre from the abacá tree is experiencing a renaissance in the fight against plastic. ©Lauschsicht/QWSTION

Forgotten by progress, the abacá shrub grows in the tropical forests of the Philippines and has properties that are impressing materials researchers around the world: Its fibres are tear-resistant, water-repellent and durable. At the same time, the plant, which belongs to the banana family, requires no fertiliser, no pesticides, no additional irrigation - it makes do with what nature provides.

Ship's ropes, cordage, baskets, hats: all have traditionally been made from the fibres of the abacá plant. “The material has also always been used for special types of paper," says Hannes Schoenegger.

A man with slightly greying hair looks friendly into the camera.
Hannes Schoenegger, 53, is the co-founder of QWSTION, a Zurich-based company that makes products from fabrics extracted from the abacá plant. © QWSTION

The 53-year-old is co-founder of the Zurich-based company QWSTION, which has set itself the goal of helping the abacá fibre to experience a renaissance. Under the name "Bananatex" the Swiss company sells a growing range of backpacks, bags and clothing made from the leaves of the Philippine banana plant. “We decided to use as many natural fibres and materials as possible," says Schoenegger. The search, which began with cotton and linen, eventually led the designers to the Philippines. "We presented the first bag in 2018 for our 10th anniversary, " Schoenegger recalls. We now have more than 60 different Bananatex models and plan to completely change the range soon.

Fibres from the abacá plant for further processing in a metal press
Fashion giants such as Tommy Hilfiger and H&M are now interested in durable, biodegradable abacá material. ©Lauschsicht/QWSTION

Fashion giants such as Tommy Hilfiger and H&M are already interested in the hard-wearing, biodegradable material, and designer brands such as Stella McCartney have already launched products with Bananatex. We decided to share this innovation with others "to make the textile industry more sustainable,” says Schoenegger, "and a lot of companies from different industries have already come to us to at least take a look at it.

Too much of a good thing: how plastic became a problem

With its idea of looking to nature for alternatives to plastic, the 20-employee Swiss company is following a trend: dozens of start-ups around the world are researching plant-based ingredients that can be used to make sustainable materials that are as light, flexible and durable as plastic, without harming the environment. It is a tricky business because 'bioplastic' does not automatically mean that the material is environmentally friendly. The term is used to describe different types of plastic that are either based on natural raw materials or are biodegradable - but not necessarily both.

Just how organic are bioplastics?

Are bioplastics really better for the environment? Not necessarily. Biodegradable plastics are not automatically compostable and can also be made from crude oil. "Neither the raw materials nor the production and disposal of bioplastics are more environmentally and climate-friendly than fossil plastics," warns the WWF.

Alternatives to conventional plastic will only be truly sustainable if they are made from renewable resources and ultimately decompose naturally because they can be broken down by microorganisms. The challenge is that the production of organic raw materials must not "compete with food production", according to the Fraunhofer Society, and the plastic alternatives must also have similar properties to conventional products. 

The German Federal Environment Agency and the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment explain in detail on their websites which recyclable materials really belong in the organic waste bin and which do not.

One thing is clear: the market is looking for alternatives to fossil-based plastics, which are made from crude oil and have become a problem for the planet. Since 1950, production of what was once a wonder material has risen from two million tonnes a year to more than 400 million tonnes today. The OECD estimates that the amount of plastic produced annually could triple again by 2060 - and the consequences of this relentless growth are already being felt dramatically.

A colourful collection of washed up plastic waste covers a beach.
Plastic is a growing problem for our planet: islands of plastic waste the size of a square kilometre in the oceans and accumulations on beaches are evidence of this. © GettyImages

They range from one-square-kilometre islands of plastic waste in the oceans, to microplastic particles that people breathe, drink or ingest with food, to climate change: the production and use of plastics releases almost two gigatonnes of greenhouse gases every year - equivalent to 3.8 per cent of total emissions.

“Things can't go on like this," concluded the OECD in a recent report on managing plastic waste. In addition to better disposal and more recycling, the UN body is calling for a rethink in product design: away from single-use products and towards a circular economy. The EU has already set such targets in a tougher packaging directive, which will gradually increase recycling rates by 2030 and encourage the use of organic materials to 'promote a sustainable bio-economy'.

"The directive has become a driver of innovation," says Christoph Biehl, Stewardship Lead Europe at LGT. "The packaging directive makes clear that there can be no business as usual and encourages the search for new solutions." One focus is on packaging, because films, bottles, bags, cups, straws, disposable tableware and much more make up the largest proportion of plastic waste: 36 percent of all plastics are produced for packaging.

Sugar straws, seaweed boxes

Food takeout packaging stacked on top of each other
Winner of the Earthshot Prize: compostable boxes made from seaweed. © Ellie Smith/The New York Times/Redux/laif

Alternatives come from inventive start-ups such as Notpla, which has developed compostable boxes made from seaweed, for example for food delivery, and won the Earthshot Prize in 2023. Others, such as Traceless, Biolo and PlantSwitch, use agricultural waste to produce biodegradable, fossil-free bioplastics. Mushroom spores or shells from crustaceans such as crabs and shrimp can also be used as the basis for naturally decomposing materials, as EcoRoot, SourceGreen and Carapac show.

There are also established suppliers, such as Natureworks, Huhtamaki and Natureflex, which produce eco-friendlier drinking cups, straws, protective films and much more from plant-based raw materials such as cellulose, potato starch and sugar. The biggest challenge is that these near-natural bioplastics must have properties comparable to those of conventional plastics, without being significantly more expensive. 

A tricky balancing act, as customers' experiences show. Jan-Berend Holzapfel, owner of Ronnefeldt Tee, says it took years of experimentation before his company found a compostable cellulose film from Natureflex, which Ronnefeldt now uses to protect individually wrapped tea bags. "We tried other products," says Holzapfel, "but not all bioplastic packaging could withstand long sea voyages, heat and humidity - ideal conditions for bacteria to start prematurely decomposing compostable plastic alternatives." In addition, the price is still significantly higher than that of conventional plastic packaging. Holzapfel sees no way of passing on the cost.

"Here too, organic products are more expensive than conventional ones, so the customer goes along with that," says the 51-year-old. He has his doubts about the packaging, "but it is important for us to make a contribution," says Holzapfel. His family business, which is more than 200 years old, wants to contribute to a future that is worth living for everyone. "To do this, we simply have to act in a more environmentally friendly way."

Organic growth: how big can the bioplastics market become?

The extent to which the bioplastics market has so far been characterised by idealism is also reflected in the sales figures: While petrochemical plastics have a global turnover of more than USD 600 billion a year, organic alternatives have a turnover of just USD 12 billion. Nevertheless, investors are optimistic, with market researcher Grand View Research predicting that the business will almost quadruple by 2030, to an annual turnover of USD 44.8 billion.

Two young men with hard hats in hand in a warehouse
Ecovative founders Eben Bayer and Gavin Mclntyre: their fungal technology for producing sustainable alternatives to plastics is attracting investors. © Ecovative

In addition to packaging, furniture, building materials and clothing are also expected to drive growth. The fashion industry in particular is eagerly looking for ways to replace synthetic fibres. Currently, more than half of all textiles are made from polyester - by 2022, production will have risen to 63 million tonnes. Last year, start-ups developing sustainable materials for the textile industry - including Natural Fiber Welding, MycoWorks and Ecovative - raised nearly USD 500 million from investors. 

Despite the optimism, some experts doubt that the new materials will penetrate the market quickly enough to make a real difference. "We currently have a biopolymer market of 1.5 to 2 million tonnes," says Christof Witte, a sustainability expert at McKinsey & Company. "Maybe that can grow to 10 million tonnes, but that won't solve the world's real plastic problem." Instead, Witte argues, the focus should be on waste prevention and better disposal, especially in Asia.

Portrait of Christopher Greenwald
Christopher Greenwald, Head of Sustainable Investing at LGT Private Banking, is convinced that the fight against plastic must be a combination of avoidance and plastic alternatives. © LGT

Christopher Greenwald, Head of Sustainable Investing at LGT Private Banking, sees the best chance of success in a combination of different approaches. "It’s not an either/or. We need alternatives to reduce the negative impact of plastics. This will require a combined effort across the board, because we’re dealing with quite a complex problem across different geographies around the world." 

Ambitious founders are spurred on to reinvent the multi-billion dollar plastics market from the ground up. "Today you have 400 million tons of plastic pellets produced by petrochemical companies. We want to replace those plastic pellets with our own," says Michael Kingsbury confidently.

Dried seaweed in a test tube
Seaweed is said to be the raw material for a granulate that can be made into a material with all the properties expected of plastic.

The 34-year-old Australian is co-founder of Uluu, a company that has developed a process to make compostable plastic from seaweed. Kingsbury explains that the process is similar to "brewing beer". It starts by extracting sugar from the plants, which then feeds bacteria in a fermentation process. The details of the process are patent pending. The end product is PHA, a common raw material for biodegradable plastics, from which Uluu makes its granules.

A woman stands in the shallow sea harvesting seaweed.
There are several advantages to using seaweed as a raw material: It binds CO2 and is easy to produce in large quantities without competing with food, explains Uluu's co-founder. © Adobestock/ trezy76

The result is a "unique material gives us the properties that customers expect from plastic without generating persistent pollution," says Kingsbury. There are several advantages to using seaweed as a raw material: It binds CO2 and, unlike corn or potato starch, can be easily produced in large quantities without competing with food or taking up huge amounts of land. "We have a pretty clear path to reducing the cost of production to ultimately compete with conventional plastics on price," says Kingsbury. 

Trials are underway near the company's Perth headquarters, and next year Uluu plans to start producing packaging for cosmetics and yarns for the textile industry. "Brands are desperate to find alternatives, due to consumer pressure and emerging legislation. But currently there aren’t alternatives out there that give them the properties that they expect," says Kingsbury, "and there are currently no solutions on the market that meet their expectations."

Seaweed in the sea, bathed in sunlight
Uluu is currently conducting tests to produce packaging and yarn from seaweed. © istock/Grafissimo

Of course, building the business will cost money, far more than the nine million dollars in seed capital Kingsbury and co-founder Julia Reisser, a marine biologist, have raised so far. But investors, she and Kingsbury hope, might be attracted by the prospect of doing good and making good money. "Through Uluu, we believe we have a plastic alternative that is compatible with nature and means that brands don’t need to compromise on performance," says Kingsbury.

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