Seaweed: A Solution to Our Plastic Packaging Problem
$198 billion. That’s the current value of the worldwide plastic packaging industry, which creates over 78 million tonnes of plastic every year. It’s no secret that single-use plastics are a problem worth solving for the sake of ecosystem, human health, and sustainable business.
- Packaging accounts for 40% of total plastic usage, making it the largest end-use market segment.
- Only 14% of the plastic packaging used globally is recycled.
- A study backed by the United Nations valued the cost of plastic usage, from production to disposal, at $75 billion annually.
- Food and drinks sectors create the highest amount of plastic packaging, accounting for 23% and 12% of plastic’s overall impact, respectively.
The good news is, thanks to advancements in material science, the market for alternative packaging solutions continues to grow, expected to reach $71.8 billion by the end of 2021. In coming years, the global market is poised to reach over $142 billion. More and more plastic alternatives are being brought to market, including materials made of algae, hemp, sugarcane, and other creative solutions.
Biotech Companies Explore Seaweed as a Packaging Solution
Among the latest innovations, seaweed-based products are the new wave of plastic packaging solutions. London-based packaging company DS Smith began exploring the possibilities of using seaweed as an alternative fibre source to wood, aiming to reduce lumbering practices that contribute to deforestation. Early testing in partnership with biotech companies indicates the material also shows promise in replacing plastic packaging, cartons, paper wraps, and cardboard.
The man behind the material is Miles W. Roberts, Group Chief Executive Officer of DS Smith. After graduating from Bristol University with an engineering degree, Roberts went on to become an accountant before growing his expertise in financial and operations management. Previously, he served as McBride PLC’s Group Finance Director before becoming CEO. He also served as Senior Independent Director of Poundland Group PLC until 2016. He has been a member of the board at DS Smith since 2010 and was appointed CEO that same year. Miles combines his strong leadership skills, strategic vision, and rare combination of engineering and accountancy expertise to lead the DS Smith team towards success – while inspiring others to stretch for higher standards in sustainable business.
“Whether it is reducing waste or designing new materials, our values provide us with the tenacity to continue to challenge and push each other to meet these ambitions,” Roberts said in a June announcement, “I couldn’t be more proud of our people for making this happen.”
Given the wide range of uses, the market for seaweed has the potential to disrupt a variety of industries: food, drink, shipping, and beyond. According to a report funded by the SUN institute, the seaweed manufacturing industry is estimated to be valued at £8billion by 2030 and will generate 115,000 jobs in Europe alone.
With seaweed being just one of the many bioplastic options out there, the future of green manufacturing looks brighter everyday. DS Smith isn’t the only company adding seaweed to their list of planet-friendly packaging solutions, with companies like Notpla and SoluBlue also incorporating seaweed in their packaging products.
But, What is the Cost of Change?
Many believe the initial investment in R&D and production of plastic alternatives would create a significant cut to company profits. However, experts say that the cost of not making the switch away from plastic would ultimately lead to a missed opportunity to widen profit margins.
Although DS Smith’s seaweed packaging has yet to hit the market, the success of other bio-based materials indicates a promising future for plastic alternatives. Rising consumer awareness also hints towards the growing need for companies to adopt alternative packaging. According to recent research, over 80% of consumers are looking to see a reduction in plastic packaging following COVID-19.
Are Bioplastics More Cost Efficient Than Plastic?
In 2019, IKEA replaced the styrofoam used in their packaging with Evocative’s mushroom fiber-based material. The switch made it possible for IKEA to package shipments more efficiently, increase volume of products per shipment, thus lowering shipping costs and environmental impact in one fell swoop.
Studies also show that plastic pollution costs society up to $2.5 trillion a year in the oceans alone. Not only could businesses embrace the opportunity to help solve this global problem, but investing in more sustainable packaging would help them appeal to the 77% (and growing number) of consumers who view a product’s environmental impact as one of the key factors in their decision making process.
“As a leader in sustainability, our research into alternative raw material and fiber sources has the potential to be a real game changer for our customers and consumers who increasingly want products that are easy to recycle and have a minimal impact on the environment,” said Thomas Ferge, paper and board development director at DS Smith.
If you believe that business for good is good business (which we do!) then we can agree that no overhead cost could possibly outweigh the value of preserving our one and only planet home for future generations.