A hopeful story to start the new year: Three transformative organisations disrupting the packaging industry

10 January 2023 by Tanith Allen
blog author

Businesses and stakeholders are firmly aligning in their desires to mitigate the negative impact on sustainability by tackling one of the major culprits - plastic pollution.

However, while sustainable packaging is high on the agenda of many people, the language surrounding the recyclability of products can lead to uncertainty as consumers feel confused by what is and isn’t recyclable. The result? A glut of ‘wish-cycling’ occurs, where products become destined for landfill due to a lack of public knowledge surrounding a product’s end of life.

I am highlighting three companies that are championing sustainability by disrupting through use of innovative materials, developing tech-driven solutions to use less, and own product end of life.

1. Notpla

Experts have spent years researching ground-breaking alternatives to plastic, while a potential panacea may have been lying in the ocean all along.

Seaweed and its properties have long been renowned in Asia for food and medicinal purposes but now the West has woken up to the fact it could be utilised to help overcome the plastic pollution crisis.

Around 50 per cent of the photosynthesis on Earth occurs in algae and seaweeds, releasing oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide - with seaweed farming reportedly sequestering three times more carbon (per hectare) than a tropical forest. But it’s only now that the humble seaweed is being hailed a potential hero in the fight against climate change as experts discover it could replace plastic. One company, Notpla, has won the Earthshot Prize in 2022 for its efforts in showcasing seaweed’s merits.

The London-based start-up uses seaweed and plants as an alternative to plastic. While the natural resources biodegrade within weeks, plastic can take 500 years to break down.

Acre was delighted to see Notpla winning 2022’s Build a Waste-free World category for using seaweed as an alternative for plastic. Having worked closely with Notpla personally, I feel particularly compelled to shine a light on the business’s eco prowess.

The mission-driven company was founded by two friends, Pierre Paslier and Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez, seeking to end the plastic crisis, and following intense research they founded the first Notpla product, while studying Innovation Design Engineering. 

Notpla utilises a plentiful supply of brown seaweed (did you know it grows up to one metre per day?!) and other plants, for a portfolio of solutions ranging from 38,000 ‘Oohos’ (a beautiful word, describing an edible bubble that holds beverages for on-the-go consumption) to two million takeaway food containers. Notpla has joined forces with online food order firm Just Eat, resulting in the takeaway company supplying seaweed-coated packaging for restaurants in the UK, Austria, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands and Ireland.

Notpla has also produced a flexible seaweed film, an alternative covering to plastic on cardboard trays and ketchup sachets, which will be scaled up with no end-of-life trace.

The company continues to develop new solutions with seaweed paper and rigid materials currently in the pipeline. The Earthshot Prize will enable Notpla to invest in R&D, new machinery and expand the number of chemists and engineers within its team.

For those who have been living under a rock for the past couple of years (you can blame Covid for that), The Earthshot Prize is a coveted global environmental prize founded by Prince William. The five winners of 2022 were announced recently, within the categories: Protect and Restore Nature, Clean Our Air, Revive Our Oceans, Build a Waste-free World and Fix our Climate.

The aim of the Earthshot Prize is to repair the planet within a decade by searching for the most effective and innovative solutions. The five most inspiring entries every year over a decade are each awarded £1million to develop and scale their work to drive tangible, long-lasting impact.

2. Algramo

Santiago-founded business Algramo uses innovative measures (‘measures’ being the operative word) to ensure plastic packaging becomes a thing of the past.

José Manuel Moller, founder and CEO of the Chilean company, was living in a student area of the country where he noted an in-just socio-economic sway toward how those on lower incomes were pushed towards certain packaging consumption behaviours.

The poverty tax created struck a deep chord with José, resulting in the creation of smart packaging that is scanned before it’s refilled at a fair price, with no further charge on packaging.

The method is now being trialled in partnership with Lidl, led by the former GM of KeepCup (the world’s first barista-standard reusable coffee cup) as well as recycling company Terracycle.

3. Podback

With an estimated 30,000 plastic coffee pods ending up in landfill each month, coffee packaging has awaited long overdue change. Enter stage-left Podback; a not for profit, independent business founded by the two largest players in the UK coffee industry, Nestlé and Jacobs Douwe Egberts UK.

35 per cent of coffee pod drinkers are unaware that pods can be recycled, and 90 per cent state that they’d prefer to recycle their coffee pods at home. Podback was born as the first of its kind recycling programme, ensuring end-of-life for coffee pods remains as circular as possible.

The used pods can be returned to Podback through methods such as Collect Plus and are suitable for kerbside collection, provided they are placed in Podback bags available from the website.

Having worked with each of these innovative businesses I’m incredibly optimistic about how, when looking at a product’s life holistically (1. Do we need it? 2. How can we make it more sustainable? 3. How can we effect change regarding end of life?) the transformation currently happening across the packaging and consumer goods market is carving a pathway for sustainability in other global markets. I imagine a world where one day seaweed becomes a key component of the medical world’s packaging problems... We can only but dream = who knows?!

Tanith Allen is Director – Infrastructure, Manufacturing & Technology at Acre UK. In addition to her role at Acre, Tanith is an Independent Advisor for Notpla supporting the leadership team to enable a sustainable future.
During her time at Acre, Tanith has placed the Commercial Director at Notpla, Executive Director at Podback, and the UK Country Manager at Algramo. In addition, she has placed the CEO at Ocean Generation, the global movement regenerating our oceans, supported by Acre’s charity arm the Acre Foundation.

Acre is a B-Corp certified, purpose-led business, founded 20 years ago. It is the world’s market-leader in search, recruitment and talent development, specialising in sustainability. Acre currently has a vacancy for a Portfolio Origination Analyst at Earthshot Prize.

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