Go to your average supermarket for a weekday lunch, buy a new lamp for your home, or take away a bit of food from a restaurant for an easy dinner, and you will undoubtedly notice that they come in labyrinths of plastic packaging — packaging which can take up to 1000 years to degrade.
Luckily, where there are problems, there is technology. That’s why for this week’s post, we looked into the sustainability arena to see what startups are doing to make the packaging industry more environmentally friendly.
We ended up discovering five broad patterns of startups, here they are:
The first, and most obvious method of addressing plastic waste in packaging is to change the packaging material.
To that end, a host of startups — such as Paptic and Sulapac — are looking into making packaging through materials such as wood, flax, hemp, or palm leaves. The resulting products could be cups, bowls, and cutlery, but also the material that supermarket goods are stored in.
Other ventures, such as Ecoplasteam, take focus on the source material. These firms make use of waste materials like scrap paper to produce packaging with a circular touch, while firms like CuanTec or bio-lutions convert agricultural waste into biodegradable plastics. And others, like Corbion, look for greener methods to make plastic so to reduce the byproducts of production.
Related to the alternative materials cluster, sustainable design builds environmental thinking straight into the packaging.
One method is to build packaging out of materials that can be repurposed after disposal. Reflow, for instance, turns waste plastics into 3D printing material.
Another common technique is to make products that are reusable, like the refillable bottles to reduce single use plastics made by Reload Labs and Vesta Smart Packaging. Others, such as Koepala and SmartWrapr, build packaging using less plastic, or make industrial wrapping material that can be reused time and again.
An interesting trend we found was the use of bio-indicators to measure food freshness, like those offered by mimicalab and is it fresh, which could help reduce food waste by telling you exactly when food spoils.
Alternative business models
Of course, changing the packaging alone might not be enough, so some firms are examining their business models so see if they can incentivize sustainable behavior from users.
LivingPackets, for instance, encourages users to return boxes by sharing profits for returning boxes to partner firms (and shares 50% of profits with contributors!).
Another angle is to encourage recycling through some kind of reward-based incentive. Helpful, allows consumers to identify plastics on an app, then directs them to branded recycling bins which guarantee that the waste will be recycled, and in return users earn in-app currency which could be used to buy products like reusable bottles. Ususty on the other hand looks to encourage the same behavior by gamifying the recycling process.
To follow along the business model line of thought, firms like Supplycompass and Sensize offer platforms to match companies with responsible supply chains, while Waste Ledger and Circular IQ analyze and track waste processes to find areas where efficiency could increased, and transparency injected.
Unlike startups that replace plastics or design reusable products to usher in more environmentally conscious features — these firms add sustainability into the packaging process by looking at the associated costs and externalities which follow the logistics chain from supplier to corporate to consumer.
Conversion to power
Finally, the last cluster we noticed was startups turning waste products into power, such as Renovare Fuels and Oxford Sustainable Fuels, which turn biodegradable waste into fuel. Despite this cluster having been in existence for quite some time already, we nonetheless decided to include this sector because of its potential contributions to a more circular product cycle which sees the disposed packaging converted into something beyond landfill.