German company Made of Air won the crowd vote last week at GreenBiz Group’s Circularity 21 pitch competition. The company, which competed with four other circular economy startups, received praise from investment professionals Ellen Martin, chief impact officer of Circulate Capital, and Jessica Long, managing director and chief strategy officer of Closed Loop Partners.
Made of Air is rethinking plastics by creating them from biomass waste. The Center for International Environmental Law found that 99 percent of plastics are made from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels. In 2019 alone, the production and incineration of plastic added more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, equivalent to 189 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants.
Plastics traditionally were manufactured by processing petroleum, but nowadays, natural gas is the feedstock for materials such as polyethylene and polypropylene.
Made of Air is disrupting the status quo of global plastics by not only creating a carbon-neutral plastic alternative but also a carbon-negative one. The company has developed a technology that prevents carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere by creating thermoplastics that are durable and renewable from wood waste. According to CEO Allison Dring, the process is carbon negative as more carbon dioxide is taken out of the air than emitted during the process. Additionally, Made of Air’s plastic acts as a carbon sink, sequestering CO2 out of the atmosphere.
"Durable plastics, unlike disposable plastics, don't have biodegradable alternatives," Dring said. "So manufacturers still rely on fossil resources to produce these products. Made of Air looks at the climate crisis differently. What we see is an oversupply of carbon in the atmosphere. And what that actually means is that climate change is a material problem."
We want to take a leap. We don’t want to take a step.
Made of Air’s alternative plastic process starts with wood waste. In the United States, total wood waste topped nearly 18 million tons in 2018, which was then recycled, combusted or left in landfills. The resulting decomposition releases the carbon dioxide stored in the wood back into the atmosphere. Made of Air interrupts this process by converting the organic waste into biochar. The conversion process stabilizes the decomposing material, and the carbon dioxide associated with it so that it never releases into the atmosphere.
After the company has created biochar, the material is transformed into a plastic that can be used in manufacturing settings. Currently, Made of Air has three polymers for three applications: furniture; automotive; and the built environment.
Made of Air has worked with Audi to create the architecture of the electric charging station at the Munich airport, and H&M, where the company’s plastic was used to make sunglasses for H&M’s Conscious Collection.
Beyond these partnerships, Made of Air won over Martin and Long with its scalability. Long was especially enthusiastic about Made of Air’s ability to both bring new materials to the market and create a strong business model.
According to Dring, Made of Air is piloting a production line next year — at a factory being built outside of Berlin — and will introduce a carbon offset verification process of the products. The International Energy Agency predicts that plastic production could reach 540 million metric tons by 2040, making Made of Air’s products an even more important innovation for the circular economy.
"[Companies have a] default culture where they say, ‘Let’s just make it a little better,’" Dring said. "And I think everyone can feel good around that. The challenge for us has been to resist that and say, 'No, actually, we want to take a leap. We don’t want to take a step.'"