Kelp-based straws will beat the price of paper straw competitors later this year and could under-price plastic straws by the end of 2020.
The young woman strode past the three judges and spoke directly to the Standing Room Only audience of more than 1000. “I am Chelsea Briganti, my company is LOLIWARE, and we are part of a plastics-free movement. We believe that single-use plastics should never be designed to last forever. They should be designed to disappear.”
This was the long-awaited final pitch-off between what had begun as a large flock of eager entrepreneurs two days earlier. I was at the Collision Conference, held towards the end of each May, this year for the first time in Toronto. I had already listened to Chelsea’s pitch twice before, each time with 3 new judges, as she advanced through the competition, and it was clear to me she was getting consistently better. The first time she had 15 minutes and was able to use a larger slide deck to tell her story with images and numbers. This final time she had only 5 minutes, just a few slides, and the competition was the two very best other finalists from the entire contest. One was a Silicon Valley gourmet vegan food delivery and mail order service. The other was a wireless credit bank for under-served parts of rural Africa.
Briganti had seemed nervous in some of the earlier competition but this time was fearless. “There are currently 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the ocean. I’ve seen it first hand. I was at the Ocean Plastics Leadership Summit down in Bermuda last week. I was diving in the open ocean and I was surrounded by plastics. It was like being in a snow globe.
LOLIWARE has pioneered the world's leading seaweed technology to replace single use plastics. LOLIWARE's products…
“And straws are no exception (slide changes to read, ‘360 billion straws used worldwide annually’). We use them and discard them in the billions annually. They end up in our waterways and across our shorelines. I have to ask myself, why, if we are only going to use something once, have we engineered it to last forever? This thinking seemed fundamentally flawed, so I set out to change it (slide changes to read, “the straw of the future”).
She gives each of the judges a faux plastic, edible straw made from kelp, colored with blue-green spirulina algae.
“We asked ourselves, what would radical change look like? The straw of the future would be designed to last for hours, not centuries. It would be made from carbon-sequestering kelp, and after you were done using it, it would disappear due to natural processes.”
She then briefly gave her own resume before founding LOLIWARE, working in design and branding for major global companies. She named some her early backers and supporters: the Sustainable Ocean Alliance, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Closed Loop Ventures, NY State Venture Fund, and Mark Cuban. “I focus on radical leaps towards a sustainable future, not incrementalism, and we are a team of chemists, engineers, technologists, and innovators and we take the building blocks of seaweed and combine them with super-innovative manufacturing methods to create the plastics of the future.”
The first wave of LOLIWARE straws started shipping March 7th to Kickstarter pre-orders and some early adopter companies she had signed, such as Marriott and Pernod Ricard. “I have demand for 18 billion straws through GBG (Global Brands Group, a joint venture with Creative Artists Agency, currently the world’s largest brand management company) for coffee shop and fast food outlets. For every one billion straws that I replace there is $100 million in revenue.
“And that’s just the beginning. With our game-changing technology, we will be creating and commercializing the future of single-use plastics made from kelp. Imagine all cups, all lids, utensils, plates, and films [used in packaging] — designed to disappear.
“Together, let’s create plastic-free oceans once again, for generations to come. Thank you!”
Thanks to grassroots campaigns like The Last Plastic Straw, begun in 2011 and described in detail in my recent book, Transforming Plastics, in September 2018 California became the first US state to implement a ban on plastic straws. Dine-in restaurants no longer are allowed to provide customers with straws automatically. Instead, customers who need plastic straws have to request them. Restaurants that violate the ban will receive warnings first, and repeat offenders will be fined up to $300. Other states and countries have enacted or are considering enacting similar and even more extensive bans. None of these laws would have happened if the people of those jurisdictions had not first demanded them of their government officials. In Transforming Plastics, I wrote:
In 2018, Business Insider South Africa tested five alternatives to plastic straws: stainless steel, etched copper, glass, bamboo, and Khanyiso reed. All are reusable and two are both biodegradable and renewable. Prices for each straw ranged between fifteen and ninety-five times its plastic counterpart. Metal straws, both copper and, to a lesser extent, stainless steel, had serious problems with heat because they heated or cooled to the temperature of the drink, which made them harder to handle or sip from. The bamboo straw left a bad taste, and the reed straw was nearly as bad. With the reed, everything hot tasted woody quickly, and anything cold tasted woody eventually. Bamboo left a foul green aftertaste and ruined the flavor of coffee. Glass had none of these problems and had the added advantage of being see-through. But glass could not be carried around safely. Business Insider concluded, “So this glass straw is a clear winner with one important caveat: it requires a sturdy carry case. Most likely something made of rigid plastic, rather than the hemp sleeve its makers provide.”
LOLIWARE’s kelp straw adds no flavor to either hot or cold drinks, outlasts paper straws that can wither only a third of the way through the drink (necessitating 3 straws each time), and can be reused if it is washed and dried after each use. Otherwise, left outside it would degrade in about 18 hours. Alternatively, you can just eat it, because — although flavorless — it is both digestible and nutritious. Briganti says it will cross below the price point of her paper straw competitors later this year and likely (if she can scale quickly) best all its plastic straw competitors by the end of 2020.
It is none too soon. Microplastics in the oceans will soon outweigh the weight of all ocean fish combined. Not really a fair comparison, because it is being absorbed into all those fish, as well as seabirds, lobsters, octopi, and all other marine life, so you really should subtract the non-plastic flesh and blood and compare that. And from there the same plastic is being consumed by us and being passed along to our offspring. Studies show that most of us have microplastics in our bloodstreams and stored in our organs, and our babies now show trace amounts at birth.
In The Golden Age (1889), Cuban author José Marti wrote:
There are men who can live contentedly even if they do live undignified lives. There are others who suffer as if in agony when they see people around them living without dignity. There must be a certain amount of dignity in the world. There must be a certain amount of light. When there are many undignified men, there are always others who have within them the dignity of many men. Those are the ones who rebel ferociously against those who rob nations of their freedom, which is robbing men of their dignity.
Those, like Chelsea Briganti, with the dignity of many men, are beginning to act. In December 2017, the UN Environment Assembly adopted a global goal to stop the discharge of plastic to the sea.
In April 2018, just ahead of a Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance meeting in Vanuatu, soon-to-be British ex-prime minister Theresa May announced her intent to ban single-use plastics, including straws and cotton swab handles. Calling plastic waste “one of the greatest environmental challenges facing the world,” May said she would work with industry to develop alternatives. An estimated 8.5 billion plastic straws are tossed out in the UK every year, and £61.4 million from the public purse was pledged to fight the rising tide.
At that Commonwealth meeting led by Caribbean-born secretary general Patricia Scotland, fifty-two countries pledged to ban microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics and personal care products and to cut plastic bag use by 2021. On June 5, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, just re-elected, announced his intent to eliminate all single-use plastic in the country by 2022. With a fast-growing economy and population of 1.3 billion, India struggles to manage its vast waste stream and is a significant contributor to global ocean plastic. “Let us all join together to beat plastic pollution and make this planet a better place to live,” Modi said.
On July 6, 2018, Chile’s Constitutional Court ratified a bill that bans retail use of plastic bags across the country. They ruled against an appeal of the law that had been filed by the plastics industry. Also in July, Seattle became the first US city to ban plastic straws and utensils in bars and restaurants. Roughly five thousand licensees are being told they must now switch to paper or compostable plastics. A similar ban that was proposed for Hawai’i was defeated by opposition from industry. Other proposed bans are being debated in San Francisco, New York, and Washington, DC, among other places.
In the same month, Disney, Starbucks, Red Lobster, and Lindblad Expeditions all announced they were getting rid of single-use plastics. McDonald’s is also planning to phase out plastic straws at their UK and Ireland locations, coinciding with UK and EU proposals to cut single-use plastic. Family-owned Bacardi Ltd, the world’s largest spirits producer with more than 200 brands and labels, intends to cut their usage over the next two years by a billion straws.
The Aquarium Conservation Partnership (ACP), comprising twenty-two aquariums in seventeen US states, have gotten Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, United Airlines, the Chicago White Sox, and Dignity Health hospitals to stop offering plastic straws. They hope to commit another five hundred companies by Earth Day, April 20, 2019. ACP is also partnering with the UN and European Commission to create a global coalition of two hundred aquariums to campaign against plastic.
In September 2018, Danish brewer Carlsberg became the first beer producer to ditch plastic multipack rings that hold beer and other cans together, for holders made of recyclable glue. In October, the European Parliament voted 571 to 53 to slash single-use plastic across the continent, beginning in 2021. The rules would also mandate that EU countries collect and recycle 90 percent of plastic bottles by 2025. Plastic producers would be on the hook for most of the expense of waste management and cleanup efforts.
More than 800 species of marine animals have been documented to inhabit kelp forests, and while some of these creatures are microscopic in size, the easily visible species range from tiny rainbow-colored nudibranchs to the occasional California gray whale, creatures that reach proportions of 50 feet (15 m) and 100,000 pounds (45,000 kg). Commonly seen kelp forest residents include California’s state fish, the bright-orange damselfish known as the garibaldi, schools of jack mackerel, giant sea bass, opal eye, blacksmith fish, and the occasional school of barracuda. Along the seafloor divers enjoy encounters with brilliantly colored gobies, curious blennies, colorful but well-camouflaged sculpin, cabezon, and lingcod, moray eels that are often accompanied by cleaner shrimps and more than 60 species of rockfishes.
— Dive Training Magazine
Kelp forests are not just great for fish, they also cool coastal waters, which reduces storm impact. They can be sustainably harvested for their biomass, and the more of these forests we make, the more fish we will have also.
The European plastic ban gave LOLIWARE its wings. Briganti was feeling that lift even before she took to the stage to ask for more investment. The faster she can grow LOLIWARE, starting from a single European pilot plant this year, the sooner you will see those green straws, cups, lids, and wraps coming out of the drive-up window the next time you order a fast-food breakfast.
I have only one suggestion that I will be making to LOLIWARE after the glow of Briganti’s victory at Collision starts to fade (no surprise — she won the competition!): biochar as a kelp plastic amendment. Whether you eat the straw (or plastic plate), or compost it, the carbon that the kelp removed from the ocean and atmosphere to work its photosynthesis and grow its carbon/hydrogen/oxygen body is still in labile form and will be returning to the atmosphere and oceans as carbon dioxide or methane. If LOLIWARE carbonizes its manufacturing process scraps and adds that biochar to the bioplastic, it won’t affect the taste, could improve digestive health, would be good for any compost pile, and because it has been transformed to an inorganic, recalcitrant form of carbon, won’t be returning to the atmosphere or oceans for many centuries to come.
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