Earlier this month, Notpla contacted us with the news that it had developed a paperboard material made with 30% seaweed. We spoke with the company to learn more about this new solution – and to see if it can challenge the supremacy of traditional materials.
From start to finish – how is this solution made?
Obviously, we can’t give away the secret sauce, but to make our paper, we use the components of seaweed that we don’t use in other processes in order to fully utilise the entire plant. We then prepare these byproducts to optimise the paper properties. We want to have the lowest impact possible, so we are working without adding any chemical processing at this stage. The material is then added to a blend of pulp before going to papermaking.
The paper industry said it couldn’t be done but we are stubborn. We have already achieved 30% seaweed inclusion in our at-scale production and will continue to push this further. Not only that, but our paper is free from any synthetic additives.
These chemicals are usually added to the pulp to boost certain properties, but they make the paper much less biodegradable and are an issue at end of life because synthetic materials don’t exist in the natural environment. Seaweed on the other end has been around for 100,000,000 years. We are hopeful that we can change the industry, and this is only just the beginning.
Could you give us an insight into the R&D process that lead up to the creation of the material? We’d like to know more about the challenges you faced, as well as the motivation behind the entire project.
The idea of Notpla Paper came out of Notpla’s ambition to valorize seaweed resources in a way to minimize waste generated by its other first products. Indeed, for our other packaging solutions, we use seaweed extracts that represent only 15 to 20% of seaweed, leaving 80% to waste.
We believe using our seaweed by-products will play a huge role in meeting the rising demand for board packaging. Its environmental credentials are also pushing the limits of the industry. We want to propose a truly sustainable solution, free of synthetic additives like AKD, ASA and PFA’s.
We want to work closely with the paper industry but sometimes there can be a lot of friction to put things in motion. A notable challenge has been implementing the steps to handle our by-products as a viable input on a paper machine, making sure it could be scalable from lab testing to production. We are still at an early stage in the development and it’s only the premise of what we are looking to achieve.
Functionality-wise – how does the solution compare to conventional paper?
Notpla seaweed paper is as natural as a paper can be. We have worked hard to take out unnecessary synthetic additives that are found in conventional papers such as sizing agents and stabilisers, whilst being careful to maintain the functional properties of the paper. The unique natural aesthetic of the paper really makes it stand out among other sustainable papers.
The visibility of the seaweed fibres tells the story of the journey the paper has come on. It is distinctive and pure which makes it different from standard paper. We have been pushing the boundaries to create a truly sustainable paper for quality packaging with environmental impact at the forefront of our mission.
Functionally, it is a more sustainable replacement to conventional paper in packaging. Whilst maintaining key performance characteristics, we are alleviating pressure on the earth’s forests by making use of seaweed.
From a sustainability point of view, how does this new material compare with papers/plastics in terms of environmental impact/carbon emissions? Can you unpack your claims, and talk about the evidence and LCAs that back them up?
From an environmental standpoint, our material outperforms plastics and classic paper in a number of ways.
In terms of raw material, land use is a huge factor in our material’s environmental performance. As a seaweed-based product, the production of our raw materials does not require the use of land, pesticides, fertiliser, irrigation and agricultural emissions that plant-based plastics require. In fact, seaweed farming holds a multitude of benefits.
Currently, the carbon sequestration potential of seaweed farming is being calculated and suggests huge carbon reduction potential can be harnessed from our oceans. While capturing carbon, seaweed reduces the likelihood of ocean dead zones and provides the right habitats to support the regeneration of coastal ecosystems.
At the other end of the chain, our products outperform other plastics at End of Life. Our materials biodegrade within 6 weeks in a home composting environment. Mimicking nature is a core part of our values and mission statement, to ‘make packaging disappear’; therefore, we create products with a home composting scenario in mind.
Whilst we do validate our materials through third parties, our concern with these certifications is that they fall short of the level of ‘natural’ we want our products to be. For instance, home composting certifications e.g. (TUV/Ok compost) allow for 10% of the material to contain problematic substances such as microplastics. We like to go beyond this by testing our products in nature or simulations of nature (eg: with a wormery in our office) to make sure our packaging truly disappears.
With regards to the paper market, Notpla’s seaweed paper requires 30% less wood pulp than conventional paper, lowering pressure on forests while reducing waste from the seaweed supply chain, making it a first-class sustainable solution.
We’ve come across a number of seaweed-based packaging innovations, but they are rarely scaled up successfully. Why is this the case, and will your new solution be any different?
Industrial paper making has existed for over 200 years, and plastic for 100 years so it will take a few years to achieve as much scale as these for other materials, but the market is primed for alternatives and change is coming fast. Private investors have understood this, with a flurry of innovators raising equity funding to bring their products to market.
Notpla just raised a £10m Series A with Horizons Ventures, who backed industry disruptors like Impossible Foods, Perfect Day or Modern Meadows. With this new tranche of funding, we expect to accelerate the development of our products and expand manufacturing partnerships across the industry.
A number of experts are worried that as demand for seaweed for use in a variety of applications increases, finely balanced ecosystems might be negatively affected. If innovations like seaweed-based packaging reached a large commercial scale, what would the impact of this be on seaweed ecosystems?
Seaweed for Europe projects that by 2030 European seaweed farming will reach 2.4-8.3 million tonnes of fresh seaweed to cater to growing demand - including within the packaging industry. This requires a cultivation capacity of between 7,700 - 26,300 hectares. This would occupy around 0.02 - 0.06% of Scotland’s exclusive economic zone alone.
Spread across the continent this shows the small amount of nautical space required to cater for the seaweed industry over the next decade. The move away from wild harvesting to farming promotes a safe method of production which studies have shown to have positive impacts in both coastal ecosystems and economies in the provision of jobs and the shelter and regeneration of wildlife that seaweed promotes.
Compared to the dramatic implications that fast forestry is having on our ecosystem, we believe that we can create a more regenerative system where seaweed plays a larger role in the mix of materials used for packaging.