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The hype-inducing world of bio-based materials

March 30, 2021

Today's guest blog is courtesy of Suz Okie, Associate Analyst of the circular economy at GreenBiz.

What's all the buzz about?

I’m taking the reins from Lauren this week to highlight a topic I’ve been keeping my eye on: bio-based materials. 

Creating human-made materials from living or biological sources is by no means a new development. In the library of human-made stuff, we’ve been sourcing lumber from trees or textiles from cotton for thousands of years. Yet newly invented bio-based materials are garnering significant hype as of late. 

And why not? From electronic displays made from fish scales to sanitary products made from banana fibers, the inspired remix of biological materials into unexpected products can sound like the work of science fiction. And by displacing legacy materials (often with synthetic or fossil fuel origins) these innovations can capture human imagination and evoke an aspirational future free of toxins and litter, amongst other environmental improvements. At least in theory.

But these materials do more than strike awe and inspiration. According to WBCSD’s recent report on the circular bioeconomy, bio-based products will represent a $7.7 trillion opportunity by 2030. They signal a critical step towards a sustainable, regenerative future, and early adopters of the circular bioeconomy can earn significant competitive advantage — everything from customer and employee attraction and retention to risk mitigation to growth opportunities.

Three emerging technologies

To better understand these headline-grabbing materials, I spoke with three companies about their bio-based products.

Mushroom Packaging is turning mycelium into packaging that’s “compatible with the planet.” Offering an alternative to polystyrene, polypropylene and other protective or insulating packaging, Mushroom Packaging combines the naturally binding properties of mycelium — mushroom’s root structure — with locally sourced agricultural byproducts (such as hemp hurd or rice hulls). The grown result is a nontoxic, fully home- and marine-compostable material that protects and insulates a variety of e-commerce, retail and commercial products — everything from candles to industrial servers. 

Loliware is turning algae into straws that are “designed to disappear.” Sourcing algae from sustainable seaweed farmers that capture carbon as they grow their crop, Loliware, a former  Ocean Solutions Accelerator member, is working to manufacture a variety of bio-based polymers. The end products are (technically) edible tableware replacements that naturally break down within six to ten days in home composting, and even faster in the ocean. With a B2B strategy, Loliware is building a portfolio of partners — including Marriott, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Pernod Ricard — to distribute its straws. 

Ananas Anam is turning pineapple leaves into textiles that benefit “people and planet.” Leveraging pineapple leaves, a waste product of the pineapple industry, London-based Ananas Anam uses a low-energy, low-water, chemical-free process to convert the leaves’ natural fibers into a carbon-negative, leather-like material called Piñatex. Piñatex can now be found in the footwear, fashion and furnishings of more than 3,000 clients, ranging from small-scale designers to large-scale apparel companies like H&M and Hugo Boss.

While these companies represent wholly different applications and biological sources, they share several instructive commonalities about the current state of bio-based materials. Read all about them and the rest of my story here.

Disclaimer: Guest blogs represent the opinion of the writers and may not reflect the policy or position of the Northeast Recycling Council, Inc.

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