As consumer demand for more sustainable packaging increases, DS Smith is researching the use of seaweed in paper and packaging products. In particular, the British multinational packaging company is exploring seaweed as an alternative fiber to wood. If successful, it would be the first company in the packaging industry to take this approach. The company is also examining the potential of seaweed as a barrier coating, potentially replacing petroleum-based products.
“As a leader in sustainability, our research into alternative raw material and fiber sources will help us drive this project forward, looking at seaweed’s strength, resilience, recyclable properties, scalability, and cost. Seaweed could have multiple uses with a low ecological footprint that is easily recyclable and naturally biodegradable,” said Giancarlo Maroto, the managing director of paper, forestry, and recycling for DS Smith North America.
According to Maroto, the production process could reduce energy consumption and require fewer chemicals to extract the fibers. When considering any alternative fiber, however, it is critical to examine how to sustainable use the resource. There is concern about the proper management of seaweed resources to balance environmental risks and conserve marine resources.
Seaweed is already used in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, food and animal feed. In Asia, long-term cultivation of seaweed has existed for decades, often in the form of aquaculture. By contrast, it is relatively new in Europe. Typically, ideal nutrient, light and temperature levels are critical to cultivate a particular species. Increasingly, seaweed is being seen as an attractive option for furthering the sustainability movement, but using a sustainable approach is critical for achieving these objectives.
DS Smith has yet to release specific information on the feasibility of seaweed in its products, such as which species it is creating and how it would be recycled. For example, could existing recycling infrastructure be used and what are the options for sourcing seaweed? These are key factors for evaluating the sustainability of the potential product.
Earlier this year, DS Smith announced it will invest $140 million in a five-year circular economy research and development program. Its intention is to fast-track next-generation technology and collaborate with partners to create fiber-based and fully recyclable solutions. The goal is to create 100 percent recyclable packaging within two years and take 1 billion pieces of problematic plastics off supermarket shelves by 2025. By 2030, the company plans to offer 100 percent recyclable or reusable packaging.
One of its strategies is to identify the top ten difficult to recycle items and find solutions for a circular economy. Interestingly, the company is literally thinking outside the box by challenging itself to eliminate 250,000 truck journeys from the roads. One way to achieve this is to optimize transport by reducing wasted air in transit. DS Smith is also launching an educational campaign to engage 5 million young people in the circular economy by 2030.
In addition to seaweed, the company is also exploring other alternative fibers, such as straw, hemp and silvergrass. Also, more unusual sources include agricultural waste including cocoa shells or the fiber leftover from sugarcane processing.
Currently, about only 9 percent of plastics are recycled in the U.S., due to a variety of problems including difficulties in recycling certain plastics, the low cost for recycled plastic and the lack of recycling infrastructure. In addition to serving as an excellent move for a more sustainable society and economy, such sustainable packaging products could be effective in satisfying consumer demand.
Increasingly, shoppers are thinking about the ocean plastic crises and recyclability when making purchases. According to a survey from the Boston Consulting Group, 67 percent of consumers say they think it is important that the products they buy are in recyclable packaging. And, 54 percent take sustainable packaging into account when choosing a product.
Will seaweed be a key ingredient in the circular economy? It seems very promising.
Image credit: Brian Yurasits/Unsplash
Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.