The ocean is a unknown place whose resources are becoming more known as we innovate to reverse the effects of climate change. From power generation to carbon sequestration, ocean technologies span the gamete for how they can impact life on land. One specific case of this is in plastics, something often thought of as polluting the ocean.
This week, I chatted with Julia Marsh from Sway the Future to discuss how she and her team are using our ocean’s plants to create a new compostable plastics future for consumer products.
In one sentence, what is Sway doing?
“Sway is harnessing the power of seaweed, to create home compostable replacements for single use plastics that are carbon negative, high performance and cost competitive with traditional plastics.”
How did you come behind the idea for Sway?
“My background is in brand and packaging design. I’ve worked with basically every material you can imagine in the CPG, technology, and startup worlds, as well as the broader design world. The challenge I would continually run into is that my career as a designer and as a person in packaging was at total odds with my identity as an environmentalist. I found that this was a problem many of my peers were also experiencing at all different kinds of companies.
The problem is that in most cases, you’re basically obligated to use plastic. It’s oftentimes impossible to create a package-free, recyclable, or reusable solution given how scaled systems of production are designed. So I spent a lot of time diving deep into all of the compostable answers to the packaging problem. I’m really motivated and intrigued by the idea of convenience. I understand that it will take decades for us to evolve consumer behavior and create equitable access to conscious consumption, but we can accelerate that process through materials. There’s this wave of benevolent materials coming … generous materials that help to solve multiple environmental, social and economic crises are being made right now. Seaweed is the most potent opportunity among them.
I grew up in California right next to the ocean. As a kid I visited the ocean practically every day, playing with strands of kelp and exploring tide pools. I understand the ocean and respect the power of ocean ecosystems. I mean, my family literally worked for the Monterey Bay Aquarium! So to me, utilizing seaweed to solve the plastic problem is sort of a no-brainer. Those are some of the puzzle pieces that gave life to Sway.”
Why look to the oceans for a solution to land-based problems?
“I love the poetry that something from the ocean can help save the ocean. We often look at the ocean as an at-risk-only ecosystem, but it actually has an immense number of solutions – food, energy, and packaging being among them. So I think it makes a lot of sense, as we exhaust resources on land, to look to the ocean and work to sustainably cultivate ocean solutions. There’s so much opportunity to build systems that are regenerative; sourcing content from the ocean, but also creating and supporting healthy ecosystems, mitigating ocean acidity, increasing biodiversity, and providing sustainable employment to coastal communities through the cultivation of sustainable aquaculture. There’s just a lot of opportunity across the board. I think we’re just scratching the surface with the potential that can come from the sea.”
What are the applications for Sway’s seaweed-based packaging?
“We’re looking at applications to replace LDPE. It’s a category of single-use plastics that typically has an extremely short lifespan, but they make up the bulk of the material that cannot be recycled. Plastic retail bags, polybags, mailers, pouches, food packaging. This is the flexible stuff that jams up recycling machines when it doesn’t get sorted out. We also see these flexible plastics polluting traditional composting lines. Plus, it’s lightweight, so it floats out of landfills and is more likely to end up in the ocean – according to 5GYRES, bags, wrappers and other flexible films actually make up 40% of the plastic that’s in the sea. 160 millions tons are produced globally every year, and that number is only expected to rise. So there’s a massive amount of this material, it lasts in nature for centuries, and it oftentimes only has a 12-second lifespan before it’s thrown out.
In the conversation around circularity, I think we often forget about biological circularity. At Sway we think, “How cool would it be if we could transform this wasteful material, literal trash which brands are forced to use, into a valuable material that actually replenishes social and ecological systems?”
We can do that with seaweed. We’re creating value for the ocean by cultivating seaweed, but we’re also able to create value through the adoption of home-compostable packaging. Adopting home-compostable materials diverts waste from landfill. We’re able to replace the non-recyclable items like wrappers, bags, and pouches, but we’re also contributing to composting behavior and the accumulation of more healthy, nutrient-rich compost – which then feeds the immense potential of scaled regenerative agriculture!”
How does Sway affect the entire seafood production ecosystem and what relationship do you hope to foster with industry?
“First, the role we play at the moment is ensuring that seaweed cultivators, farmers, and processors understand that there’s a major demand for seaweed and bridging the gap in processing is a major focus for us. Currently seaweed’s primarily used for food, pharmaceuticals, and beauty products. Packaging is like the next step that needs to happen in order for the Blue Economy to really open up and bloom.
The second relationship we’re developing (which is more related to the Blue Economy as a whole) is our ability to really measure the impact that we’re having in the water. Seaweed is really a marine ecosystem architect. It provides habitats for hundreds of species and encourages biodiversity. When you’re harvesting it, ideally you’re basically giving it a haircut. The other related opportunity is to work directly with farmers, ensuring that they’re being provided reliable employment over extended periods of time – especially in regions affected by overfishing. There’s a lot of opportunity to create radically good impact for both people and the planet through the cultivation of seaweed.”
What does the market need to switch to plastics alternatives?
“Increased access to compost infrastructure. Just in the past few years we’ve seen great leaps in terms of how many Americans have access to a compost facility which accepts compostable packaging. I think the Sustainable Packaging Coalition reported it’s now up to 21%, and we’re only going to see that number increase. So naturally, we need to design solutions that fit into that waste recovery stream. The second piece of that is all of the consumer education which needs to happen around the differences and nuances between all of these emerging new materials.”
How do you teach people to be more environmentally conscious when using plastics for consumer goods?
Smart labeling, as well as building out data frameworks that give people access to information with ease. One plan is to use QR codes to guide people towards composting resources: Where’s the nearest compost? How do you set up a compost at your home, even if you’re living in New York City or Los Angeles? There’s a huge opportunity to bring people into the movement through information, and simple tools that make “doing the right thing” easy and empowering.
What do you see as the biggest hurdles to bioplastic adoption?
I think it comes from the top. It’s collaboration from the heads of packaging and procurement at every major CPG coming together and saying, ‘We understand that there needs to be an ecosystem of new materials to solve the plastic problem, and there is no silver bullet. With our shared beliefs and attitudes around the future of the planet, we can build new systems that really look holistically at packaging production, distribution and use. And together, we’re going to implement those solutions to make real positive change.’ That kind of collaboration needs to be combined with a commitment to avoiding the sins of greenwashing, and really I think that’s the biggest barrier.
From what you can share, can you elaborate more on the technology itself?
The material that we’ve produced is heat sealable, moisture resilient, nontoxic, and completely transparent. If you saw it, without having any context about Sway, you would assume that it was traditional plastic. We’ve received feedback that folks want to see materials that look like they’re compostable, and look like they’re made from a bio-based material because it’s more likely that that kind of material will get composted, so we’re now interested in also integrating less processed seaweed fiber into our product.
How does your technology scale?
The way that we’re designing our technology, the only barriers to scale are sustainably sourcing and processing the raw seaweed material. We have spent a lot of time and effort in stitching together a powerful network of suppliers and processors to enable us to deliver a commercial product, but as Sway scales, we’re going to need a lot more processors and more processing capacity.
What makes Sway different from other bioplastics and advanced materials companies?
In addition to our full commitment to replenishing the planet, I think there’s this awesome opportunity to give people direct access to the folks who are making Sway materials. It gives the average person the opportunity to see how the material is being grown and cultivated in the ocean, and how it’s being processed; what the end of the ideal end of life is; that after being composted we’re creating healthy soil; and so on. I think the more information and traceability that’s available to the consumer, the more likely they are to feel empowered by their choice to partake in that brand ecosystem. Sway enables brands to increase consumer loyalty, which means that ultimately we’re not just delivering value to the brands that we’re working with, but, you know…real people.
Thoughts and Outlook
There is no doubt that the plastics pollution problem is severe. Specific to polyethylene (the greater family of low-density polyethylene (LDPE)) contributes 22.67 million metric tonnes of plastic production (Statista). While the material is theoretically 100% recyclable, contamination and recycling capacity fail to make this a reality.
However, Sway’s use of seaweed for LDPE applications may begin to bypass recyclability and go straight to biodegradability, which can streamline the process for regenerative plastics for consumer goods and products. However, with biodegradability comes the cost of methane, a greenhouse gas that has a 25x worse effect than CO2. While it is true that methane escapes the atmosphere faster, the effects are still real. If Sway’s product can output minimal amounts of methane in its compositing process, and its life-cycle analysis yield a carbon-neutral/carbon-negative impact, Sway becomes more than just a bioplastic.
With the rise of ESG, there is a heavy incentive for companies to integrate renewable/regenerative solutions into their supply chains, as well as account for end-of-life uses for their products. This comes with a degree of accountability. Therefore, incorporating products such as Sway’s into their product ecosystem will be beneficial to green-label additional parts of their products, as well as claim to be more environmentally responsible. However, the world of consumer products is no longer one where the selling company alone should get the limelight and notoriety, but suppliers are being pushed to the forefront to show they are environmentally responsible as well. Sway’s market-timing is impeccable for this, as they have an opportunity (and almost an obligation) to be consumer-facing even though their product is not the main component of what is being sold. Julia Marsh and the team have an opportunity to define how suppliers make their name in CPG markets to eco-conscious consumers.
All-in-all, Sway has to be able to displace current plastics from supply chains, which is easier said than done, and prove out that not only can their product fit into existing machinery and supply-chain infrastructures, but also exhibit the same material properties at the same or better levels. There is a lot of pressure on Sway the Future to lead the charge for disrupting plastics consumption for LDPE using regenerative macroalgae in seaweed, but the timing and product they do have may very well be a cut above the rest.
About The Author
Impact Investment Fellow
Matt is an Impact Investment Fellow with Vectors Angels as a part of the organization’s sustainability team. While most disciplined in power generation and energy storage, Matt takes on a wide array of technologies in the sector.
Leveraging these skills, Matt works with early-stage startups on fundraising and go-to-market strategies, understanding their market, and competitor due diligence.
Matt holds a BS in Finance and Economics from Boston College and an MEng from Boston University in Materials Science & Engineering. Matt’s graduate research and passion focused on the impact fundraising mechanisms and financial institutions have on the success of startups in the renewable energy and cleantech industries. His current interests involve developing new financial instruments to fund demo and pilot “tough tech” projects and closing the commercialization gap.