Single-use plastic packaging for food is already a huge global disaster recently exacerbated by the current climate and the need for more take away food alternatives. We meet SoluBlue, a company that has a clever design for a new material composed from seaweed which behaves just like plastic but quickly biodegrades and is totally safe for marine life.

Watch their Circular Story here!

The team behind SoluBlue are Ayca and Francis.

CEO and inventor of SoluBlue material, Ayca is an industrial designer and packaging expert. Francis, the CTO, brings a background in architecture focused on technology, R&D and ecology to the table. Together with the rest of the team, Ayca and Francis are working hard to bring their unique material technology to market by scaling production in order to commercialise their idea. 

Ayca has already won several awards for her innovative ideas and has designed packaging for global brands. While studying for her masters course in product design at The Royal College of Art in London she became more interested in the material design. She realised “for single-use products there isn’t any material alternative that is fully biodegradable” and the main challenge was to produce a material which, just like plastic, is durable, lightweight and aesthetically appealing. This led Ayca to a long journey of designing a new material that looks like plastic but biodegrades like food. Francis is also a graduate of the Royal College of Art, where the pair met and developed several innovative projects together, most recently creating SoluBlue.

The company managed to gather some interest in their product by entering competitions – winning the ‘Global NextGen Cup Challenge’ was an important breakthrough for the team. It gave the company the funding and support needed to really ramp up development, and after a few more competition wins they are expanding rapidly.

Coming up in this Circular Story

  • A journey from packaging design to sustainable package design

  • Our inevitable relationship with plastic

  • Seaweed as an alternative for plastic

  • What makes Solublue circular and biodegradable

Our inevitable relationship with plastic

Plastic pollution can now be found on every beach in the world –  it is estimated that out of the 350 million tonnes of plastic produced each year, 8m tonnes will sadly make its way into the ocean. Scientists are concerned that by 2050 there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish. 

The EU is looking to ban single-use plastics in states where alternatives exist on the market. Many global brands are now looking to how they can stop using unnecessary plastic packaging and are starting to research new materials. The need to look at recycled, bio-based and biodegradable alternatives means a great opportunity for new innovative materials – fantastic news for the team at SoluBlue. Companies such as Danone, Diageo, Pepsi-co, and Unilever are already working hard to produce plastic-free packaging. 

Plastic used for food allows produce to be securely transported, protects it from contaminants, and extends shelf life. This is a key aspect of the material designed by SoluBlue which they have discovered improves the shelf life of food even more than regular plastic. The team has already completed many tests with remarkable results. Compared with plastic, their material can protect food for much longer which has huge value for companies looking to make the switch to plastic free packaging. SoluBlue already has a lot of commercial interest for their company from many global brands. The company aims to have the greatest positive impact with new material technology and to introduce new sustainable practices into as many market sectors as possible. 

Purpose or profit? 

“Our project to replace plastic with a sustainable alternative was realised before the company itself – so our business has been driven by purpose from its inception. Today our business is moving forward and we understand that all companies must aim to make profit if they are to grow and be able to sustain themselves. We also have a duty to our shareholders to represent their interests. In our view, both a focus on purpose and on profit is needed to create a sustainable business model.”

“It all started out in the garage…Or did it?”

“Following several years of experimenting on Ayca’s kitchen top, we have really grown, attracting attention from many global brands. We later set up a lab-space in Brixton, London. It was part of a complex of ‘artist’s studios’ that we repurposed as a ‘lab’. It wasn’t much, but it was enough for us to get started. Everyone else around us was working on oil paintings, sculptures or singing. Most of the big tech companies claim to have started out in a garage. For us, Brixton artist’s studios was that garage!

We have recently waved goodbye to our artist’s studios in Brixton and moved to Cambridge in order to work more closely with our engineering partner and gain support from the ‘Cambridge Institute of Sustainable Leadership Programme’ (CISL).”

Hyper Biodegradable

SoluBlue is eliminating plastic and food waste. “We are a material technology company developing alternatives to plastic using seaweed as our base ingredient. We can also extend the shelf-life of fresh food using SoluBlue material to form packaging. Our business model centres around the use of renewable resources made from seaweed to make our products. Once we set up production we intend to use existing line equipment as much as possible to manufacture our products. The idea is that we will licence our material technology to a plastic packaging manufacturer so that they can stop making plastic and make SoluBlue instead. There is a great demand for this at present, driven by social change and new legislation coming into force which will ban single-use plastic in many countries. For society to move away from using plastic we urgently require alternatives – and this is what SoluBlue aims to provide.

Our material technology keeps food fresh for longer and offers a second life to some products. Instead of becoming spoiled, fresh food would gradually dry and become preserved in our packaging. When fresh food starts to rot it creates methane gas that is more potent than CO2. Our solution has both environmental benefits and economical benefits. For example if a fresh food producer cannot sell fresh produce such as grapes they can sell them as raisins a couple of months later. If a customer forgets their blueberries in the fridge they can use them as dry berries later instead of throwing them away. At the very end of its life when the food and its entire packaging is thrown in the compost or food waste bin it can journey back to the soil in order to grow more food.”

Two Problems, One Solution 

“Plastic waste is a problem. Food waste is a problem. This goes for consumers, retailers and the natural world.. At SoluBlue we are attempting to solve two global problems with one single material solution by providing a truly sustainable and circular alternative to plastic which also reduces food waste by extending the shelf-life of food when used as packaging. 

We constantly create and innovate our products by observing needs and requests from our supply chain and customers. Our packaging has evolved from not only being a biodegradable packaging but also extending shelf-life of fresh foods by working with a food producer and listening to their shelf-life problems and plastic problems.

Collaboration is central to our business model. We are attempting to solve what we see as some of the world’s biggest problems – plastic pollution and food waste – and we certainly can’t do it alone!”

Just food waste alone costs our economy $270 billion!

“Being circular and sustainable is more profitable in the long term! This is a “win-win” situation to our environment and our economy, everyone benefits from it. We are as SoluBlue, using renewable resources that are fully compostable which fertilises soil and it doesn’t pollute the ocean and environment. It extends the freshness of food and stops food spoilage. It also offers a second life by gradually drying fresh food instead of it just getting mouldy. This opens other opportunities in cooking or animal feed. Just food waste alone cost our economy $270 billion. If any business wants to make more profit they have to be sustainable!”

Circular Quote
of the day:

‘Circularity and sustainability are central to any start-up that has legs at the moment. Established businesses are under huge social and (increasingly) legislative pressure to adopt this modus operandi. They are racing to catch up.’

Solublue

What challenges do you still face in going circular? 

“To become more circular as a company, as we scale, we must also ensure the sustainability of our supply chain and the waste management facilities in which our products will end up and be returned to the economy. A lot of work is going on at SoluBlue at present to understand this. But there is always more work to do. Our environmental and socio-economic situation is a complex ecology to understand. The task ensuring our place within it is circular, even more so.”

And what are the biggest challenges or barriers becoming circular or sustainable for the industry?

“Our global potential customers are looking for a magical material that is biodegradable and as cheap as petrol-based plastic. Competing against plastic in terms of cost and meeting our customer’s expectations is very challenging. However, we have discovered a competitive advantage to plastic that is extending shelf-life of food longer than plastic which makes our product cost-effective than plastic in the long term.

The reason why global corporations are struggling to become more circular/sustainable is because they are directed by CEOs with a responsibility to shareholders who wish to maintain the status quo. By starting our business on the basis of a robust sustainability initiative, we believe we can avoid these problems by attracting shareholders and investors who share our vision.”

Bad advice we have previously heard includes: You have to move fast”. Yes—we need to move fast as a business to retain our competitive advantage, but there is much to be said for the opposite approach which takes more tentative steps, taking time to listen and learn, and proceeding with less risk. A problem in business is that exponential growth is valued at all costs. But this is often at odds with sustainability initiatives which require a different approach and can rarely be solved ‘in a flash’. We need to stop moving forward blindly and learn to take a long-term view of things. What got us into the environmental mess we are in is that we stopped thinking about the effect of our actions on the future because we didn’t have time. Growth became more important than sustainability.”

And it is becoming more interesting to be circular for companies…

“There is a megatrend in energy efficiency – one example is the Paris agreement. Countries and companies actually do really well in following this and have a drive to do something for the climate. When there is also money to be saved the combination is good.”

Challenges in the Industry to become Circular

“I would say that one is that you need help from a third party to fund a product. In our case the need from the customer exists, the product is in place and we have the infrastructure to get it out on the market. We even have the legislation but there is an inertia due to the investment at the end customer. This needs to be solved via a financial plan for the customer and in that case we need a third party to fund it.

We also have a challenge that many people “know” that it’s not possible to recover the energy from restaurants. Many companies have tried and failed. We have made it but need to prove it often. That is of course ok but takes time.”

Our gap towards Circularity:

“Our Circularity  gap is in production. The majority of the product can be recycled but there are still some materials that is not recyclable and we need to solve that. “

YOUR EXPERT TIP FOR OTHERS

“Don’t get up too early. 
Take time to eat breakfast and to prepare for the day ahead.”

What about your personal development goals?

Ayca: “I am aware of and remind myself of our environmental impact on a daily basis. I changed my lifestyle based on that. It is very frustrating for me as a designer not to be able to recycle most of the products I buy and always feel guilty about our environmental impact on our planet.

Francis: “As you might imagine, I am now acutely aware of the damage we are collectively causing to the environment and ecosystems. What changed for me since starting this venture is that I now see the solution to the problem in a commercial light. In this sense, my point of view is more realistic – still utopian but with a real flavour of business and of economics. It is easy to say that society could change this or that tomorrow and that everything would be better as a result. By positioning the problem of sustainability within a commercial frame of reference it becomes clear that these changes must have a clear business and economic case or they will fail to achieve what they set out to do.”

What would it look like when it (the circular economy)  was easy? 

“We are not endangering any animals and plants, not polluting our environment, not cutting down forests and losing biodiversity, no animal trade, no petrol, and petrol-based products and everything is coming from renewable resources, no food waste and slowing down fast fashion, fast food and fast living.”

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Circular Quote of the Day

Do something that makes your kids proud.

Dr. Sebastian Porkert, Founder ECOFARIO

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