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Lessons from 3 emerging bio-based material technologies

Products such as electronic displays made from fish scales to sanitary products made from banana fibers have made headlines. What opportunities do bio-based materials afford?

From left to right: close up images of mushrooms, pineapple and seaweed.

From left to right: close up images of mushrooms, pineapple and seaweed, sources of bio-based products, which will represent a $7.7 trillion opportunity by 2030.

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Creating human-made materials from living or biological sources is by no means a new development, yet newly invented bio-based materials are garnering significant hype as of late.

From electronic displays made from fish scales to sanitary products made from banana fibers, these inspiring innovations can capture human imagination and evoke an aspirational future free of toxins and litter, amongst other environmental improvements. 

But these materials do more than strike awe and inspiration. According to WBCSD’s recent report on the circular bioeconomy, bio-based products will represent a $7.7 trillion opportunity by 2030. 

To better understand these headline-grabbing materials, I followed up with three emerging bio-based products from a Circularity 20 panel exploring bio-utilization and the opportunities bio-based materials afford. Here’s what I uncovered.

Turning mycelium into packaging that’s 'compatible with the planet'

Founded in 2007, New York based Ecovative Design leverages the naturally binding properties of mycelium — mushroom’s root structure — in several sustainable materials. The company’s first technology, MycoComposite, precipitated the subsidiary Mushroom Packaging, which I discussed with Ecovative’s business development lead, Meghan Olson.

According to WBCSD’s recent report on the circular bioeconomy, bio-based products will represent a $7.7 trillion opportunity by 2030.

Offering an alternative to polystyrene, polypropylene and other protective or insulating packaging, Mushroom Packaging infuses locally sourced agricultural byproducts (such as hemp hurd or rice hulls) with mushroom spores. The mixture is filled into custom shaped packaging molds, designed in collaboration with their clients, and the mycelium is allowed to take form. After seven days in its facilities, the grown result is a nontoxic, fully home- and marine-compostable material that protects and insulates a variety of products — everything from candles to industrial servers. 

Mushroom Packaging is growing its footprint with a global network of licensees from New Zealand to the United Kingdom and beyond — expanding its customer base to include cosmetics retailer Lush and even interior designers. Meanwhile, Ecovative Design continues to research new applications for its mushroom technology portfolio in New York, expanding beyond packaging into textile alternatives and vegan meat substitutes. 

Turning algae into straws that are 'designed to disappear'

Loliware was founded in 2016 in pursuit of "a radical leap towards [a sustainable packaging] future." Its interdisciplinary team is based on the east coast of the United States and combines expertise in food technology, seaweed biology, polymer engineering and even fashion to create “not just the material, but also the feeling of the brand." As co-founder and CEO Sea Briganti notes, "You can’t build what you can’t imagine, so a lot of our work is helping people imagine this new future so we can all build it together."

Sourcing algae from sustainable seaweed farmers that capture carbon as they grow their crop, Loliware is working to manufacture a variety of bio-based polymers. The end products are (technically) edible tableware replacements that naturally break down within six to 10 days in home composting, and even faster in the ocean. 

With a B2B strategy, Loliware is building a portfolio of partners — including Marriott, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Pernod Ricard — to distribute its straws. Although the pandemic has disrupted hospitality and demand, Loliware has used the lull to advance its technology and scale manufacturing with a mission to overturn legacy plastics.

Turning pineapple leaves into textiles that benefit 'people and planet'  

Following a consulting assignment with the Design Center of the Philippines, self-proclaimed "serial entrepreneur" Carmen Hijosa was determined to find (or invent) an alternative to leather and the negative impacts that came with it. By 2013, following several years of studying, research and development, Hijosa had a Ph.D., a new material in tow, and had founded London-based Ananas Anam.

You can’t build what you can’t imagine, so a lot of our work is helping people imagine this new future so we can all build it together.

Leveraging pineapple leaves, a waste product of the pineapple industry, Ananas Anam uses a low-energy, low-water, chemical-free process to convert the leaves’ natural fibers into a leather-like material called Piñatex. Producing just 2.69 kilograms of carbon per meter of material, Piñatex touts carbon saving benefits as the equivalent volume of reclaimed pineapple waste would emit about 8 kilograms of carbon if it were left to decompose or burn in the fields. 

Piñatex can be found in the footwear, fashion and furnishings of more than 3,000 clients, ranging from small-scale designers to large-scale apparel companies such as H&M and Hugo Boss. As Ananas Anam grows, so do its social and sustainability efforts as it further builds a Philippines-based supply chain and promotes local culture and resilience. 

While these companies represent wholly different applications and biological sources, they share several instructive commonalities about the current state of bio-based materials. 

They can functionally compete with legacy materials 

Touting benefits such as "carbon-negative," "biodegradable" and/or "sustainably sourced," it’s hardly surprising that bio-based materials frequently outcompete legacy alternatives on environmental impact. Beyond these sustainability claims, however, eco-friendly or bio-based products are often perceived as less effective than their synthetic counterparts. 

That’s why Briganti of Loliware knew her product "had to be a 1:1 replacement" when it came to performance. Loliware, Ecovative Designs and Ananas Anam have all invested heavily in ensuring (and proving) that their products are as functional as the legacy product they might replace. 

Mushroom Packaging promises comparable if not superior strength, insulation and hydrophobic properties to polystyrene. Ananas Anam follows stringent technical specifications to meet its clients’ exacting standards, ensuring a durable material that can take wear and tear comfortably for at least five years. And mechanical testing has shown Loliware’s straw durability is on par with its plastics counterpart, while outperforming PLA — Polylactic Acid, a bioplastic — and paper straws. The flexibility of plastic straws is a bit more challenging to replicate, but R&D is under way to do just that. 

They can be cost-competitive too, with some caveats

Competing on cost, perhaps the most elusive metric, is also in reach according to these companies. As Hijosa notes, Piñatex being sold in rolls can save clients up to 30 percent of the waste associated with the odd shapes, scratches and tears of leather hides, allowing for a comfortably comparable price point. 

As Mushroom Packaging is grown (without the need for tooling, molding or post-processing) Olsen shared that prices are competitive with molded polystyrene and molded paper pulp on smaller volume orders (while struggling to match-up when orders surpass 500,000 units.) "Low- to medium-volume sized orders are actually best for our process… [that’s why] we like working with smaller brands and growing with our customers," Olsen said. 

Finally, early 2021 will see the launch of Loliware’s 2.0 polymer, which Briganti said will allow it to compete with paper straw pricing. Although it admittedly can’t match virgin plastic prices, Briganti will be the first to note "the true price of plastic is not reflected in the price of the product — the price to clean it up, the price to our wildlife, our fisheries… our children and the next generation." 

They can offer local sourcing benefits

All three companies’ manufacturing happens in close proximity to the farmers from which they source — whether it’s Loliware near its seaweed sources in Connecticut, Ananas Anam setting up fiber processing facilities near pineapple farms in the Philippines, or Mushroom Packaging working to source locally abundant biomass — i.e. mushroom food — within 500 miles of its production facilities. 

Beyond local, they also prioritize sustainability. Loliware has sought out "the most sustainable farms in the blue ocean economy" and partnered with Greenwave, a regenerative seaweed farming nonprofit. In the cases of Mushroom Packaging and Piñatex, their biological source is considered an agricultural byproduct or waste. By purchasing it, they not only provide an added revenue stream for their farmers but also ensure the would-be waste isn’t sent to landfills, burnt or left to rot in the field.

We’re actually in complete union in caring for people and planet. All stakeholders are important to us, not just shareholders.

As a certified B-Corp, Ananas Anam also prioritizes transparency, local employment and training. "We’re actually in complete union in caring for people and planet. All stakeholders are important to us, not just shareholders," Hijosa said.

With that in mind, Ananas Anam partners with small farming cooperatives, ensuring all employees in their supply chain enjoy full contracts and fair wages. 

They can help regenerate ecosystems

By sourcing carbon-capturing, regenerative seaweed, Loliware is helping to rebuild and regenerate marine ecosystems on the Eastern Shore in the U.S. 

Beyond displacing 2 million pounds of legacy foam annually, Mushroom Packaging is not just biodegradable, it’s also "bio-contributing," adding nutrients to any soil it decomposes in. For this reason Olson says you can "feel good" about throwing it in your backyard.  

After saving water and energy in its fiber processing, Ananas Anam uses excess biomass to create compost and add nutrients back to its farmers’ soil. By 2023, it’ll have enough biomass to profitably create local energy with an anaerobic converter. 

They have requests

Given the size of the legacy industries they compete with, these companies represent a relatively narrow market share. With new supply chains to build, customer habits to overturn and cost caveats that sometimes equate to higher price points, it’s important to note they face significant hurdles to substantively scale. With that in mind, I asked what they’d wish for to advance their companies and the bio-based material industry at large. The three women I spoke with had varying, but valuable requests for what comes next. 

Olson would like consumer demand to continue to push out and displace more environmentally destructive, single-use options on the market. Briganti hopes legislation and regulation will take a more active role not just in the market, but also in supporting and funding entrepreneurs and innovators. Finally, Hijosa would like to see more integrity, transparency, and responsibility across the supply chain. Here’s hoping they get their wishes. 

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