Following on from our conversation with FlexSea cofounder and Head of R&D Thibaut Monfort on the perils of plastic pollution.
Don’t we now have bioplastics?
Compostable “bioplastics” have been touted as a solution to the plastic pollution problem.
Like carbon offsets, much of what we consider “bioplastics” are, at best, an imperfect solution, and at worst borderline counterproductive greenwash.
“The prefix ‘bio’ can mean bio-based, or biodegradable,” says Thibaut Monfort, co-founder and head of R&D at FlexSea. “Some petroleum plastics are designed to be biodegradable, like PCL for example. However, the raw feed stock for this is still petroleum and still taps into a non-sustainable resource, which is something we have to change.
“So then we move on to bio-based plastics, and again we have issues. The most common example is PLA, which is derived from starch fermentation. The problem is, to get this starch you need corn, beet or cane, and that means competing with the crop industry and the food industry in general. You need the use of arable land, you need pesticides, you need fresh water.
“On top of that PLA is not really biodegradable. It’s degradable in industrial conditions, meaning with higher temperatures and specific microorganisms. If you throw PLA into nature, or into landfill, it won’t biodegrade even after a few years.”
There are what Monfort calls “true bio-based alternatives,” such as PHA and PHB, which don’t require industrial composting. “But the problem is their high cost of production.”
“They’ve been present for the last ten or fifteen years, which shows that even with time we don’t know if they’re going to be the right alternative.”
So what’s the solution?
Monfort and his business partner Carlo Fedeli think that seaweed could provide part of the answer.
“Flexsea aims at developing a seaweed-based alternative to flexible single use packaging,” Monfort tells us. “That means it would have many of the advantages – both the use of a natural resource, seaweed, which grows pretty fast, is pretty easy to produce, and protects coastal areas from erosion, creates ecosystems, and is incredibly cost efficient to produce.”
The growth cycles compared to current plastic alternative sources, such as corn or beet, are impressive. “The cycles for those to grow is between three to six months, whereas with seaweed it can be down to 45 days.”
“FlexSea is biodegradable and biocompostable.” While acknowledging that these two terms can mean everything and nothing, Monfort explains why seaweed is such a good material source for plastic packaging from a disposal perspective.
“The polysaccharides we use with seaweed are intrinsically hydrophilic.” In other words, they break down in water.
“Nothing is created, nothing disappears, everything is transformed”
This is good news because it would mean that FlexSea products could be disposed of, effectively, anywhere. “The aim is that it could just be thrown in the normal bins and be disposed of as regular household waste.” Ideally, the recycling system would be avoided for fears of contamination. “Although, in the recycling facilities, they first off wash the plastics, because any food could contaminate it – so if you just wash it, there is a chance it could degrade during this washing process. So wherever you throw it, it’s good.”
As FlexSea biodegrades in water it breaks down into its constituent chemicals: carbon, nitrates and so on. At worst, these will return to nature in a harmless way. “We’ll be looking at the different raw materials we’re using, so that if it degrades in soil it doesn’t change the composition.” But there is evidence in the scientific literature to suggest that, in the best-case scenario, biodegraded seaweed-based bioplastic could even fertilise soil.
“Nothing is created, nothing disappears, everything is transformed.”
Is seaweed really sustainable?
“The true lungs of the earth”
Seaweed has been cultivated for tens of thousands of years. There is evidence of extensive use of a range of seaweeds, for both nutritional and medicinal purposes, at an archaeological site at Monte Verde, Chile, that is at least 14,800 years old.
“It’s pretty easy to grow, doesn’t require any pesticide, and grows pretty fast,” Monfort says. “It sequesters CO2, which is one of the big things that is underestimated. A lot of people say the Amazon rainforest is the earth’s lungs, but actually 80% of our breathable oxygen comes from photosynthesis of algae, so seaweed is the true lungs of the earth!
“I’d say it’s truly sustainable because it doesn’t need any big infrastructure to be run, it doesn’t need any big machinery for the collection of the seaweed. Then there’s the next stage which is transforming the wet seaweed into the powder that is used to create FlexSea. Again, this uses a few additives and a few chemicals, but it’s nothing like nitric acid, it’s just a few alcohols.
“The aim is to have a carbon negative company, and with seaweed already sequestering most of that CO2 the whole process is pretty much carbon negative already. The aim is to make it even more so.”
When can I get me some FlexSea?
Monfort Micheo and Fedeli are still refining the product at present, with bootstrapped R&D operations happening out of a London flat. The two attended an accelerator in Switzerland, the Mass Challenge, in late June, and are actively looking for c. £1 million in seed funding to drive hiring and lab space and equipment rental.
If all goes to plan, they hope to have a minimum viable product – or MVP – ready in around 18 months’ time. In five years, they aim to be able to produce 25 kilotons of FlexSea.
In the meantime, they’re continuing to refine their prototype. Thibaut demonstrates the strength of its biodegradability claims by eating the corner of a sheet during our call.
“I’ve done it so many times,” he laughs, “if it was going to kill me, it would have happened already!”
There is a business aspect to the stunt, however. It’s possible that the final product may not be edible, but if it is, it would open the door to a powerful avenue of advertising and consumer education.
“If you package a cereal bar, and for the advert you do a video where someone, instead of unwrapping, just chews right into it, that’s an image that sticks in the consumer’s mind. I think that’s the most pristine way of saying that it is biodegradable.”
Keep an eye out for truly biodegradable packaging hitting the stores over the coming years.