Can edible beer packaging save lives?

By Alyssa
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By: Quartz creative services

Back in March, Marco Vega, the chief strategy officer at New York advertising agency We Believers, got a text from his co-founder, Gustavo Lauría. Lauría had been supervising a photography shoot, and after the 20-or-so person production team packed up for the day, heaps of trash were left behind. “The amount of plastic bags that were left behind were just too big to ignore,” Vega says. “[Lauría] texted me that night saying ‘if there is one thing we need to pull our heads together on, it’s [to find out] what is the one thing we need to do, to minimize plastic?’ ”

Committed to the idea, the ad men reached out to Saltwater Brewery, a craft beer company in Delray Beach, Florida, that has a history of donating to conservation non-profits. They offered a proposition, to collaborate and create a compostable piece of packaging. Saltwater accepted, and the two companies then partnered with a small team of engineers, from about an hour outside of Mexico City, who are exploring alternative materials for packaging. Three months later, the three teams had it: a pale brown, biodegradable, digestible, six-pack ring that looped snugly around Saltwater Brewery’s cans of beer.

We Believers and Saltwater Brewery built their packaging primarily out of the malted wheat and barley that gets left over from the beer-brewing process. Initially, Vega says, they thought they could use a seaweed derivative. It turned out to be too brittle, and would break during manufacturing tests. Plus, “you have to then source seaweed to create the packaging, so quickly we are going to find ourselves in a bigger problem than the one we’re in,” Vega says. “Now you start to become a predator for seaweed.” Wheat and barley don’t present the same conundrum. In fact, it’s the opposite: “A lot of brewers have worked hard to get rid of the stuff,” says Chris Gove, Saltwater Brewery’s president, of the leftover grain. By using it for packaging, however, there’s “a cyclical, scalable solution that also gives back. So instead of buying the materials twice, we’re using the materials that would go to waste.” The material even retains some of its nutrients, which is good, because the package was designed to be edible to the sea animals who might eat it.

Both parties are secretive about exactly how they made their six-pack ring, but Gove says they’ve been working with 3D-printed molds. Soon, they plan on having an aluminum mold that will let Saltwater Brewery ramp up production. They’ve printed 500 prototypes so far, and over the next three or four months, Gove says, they expect to have a batch of 400,000 six-pack rings.

The problem of plastic pollution is acute, particularly in the oceans. A paper from 2014 suggested that there are a whopping 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the ocean, and it’s safe to assume that many of those pieces were once packaging. This has widespread pitfalls. Those range from the deaths of marine animals who try to eat plastic, to ocean acidification caused by carbon dioxide in the water, which can severely harm human health and the fishing and shellfish industries. For that reason, we can expect to see more initiatives like the one from We Believers and Saltwater Brewery in the near future.

Experiments with frozen algae

Bio-based packaging isn’t new—plenty of consumers have encountered compostable cutlery and the like at green-minded restaurants—but it had two big moments this year. One came in April, when the annual Lexus Design Awards awarded its first-place prize to Amam, a three-person design team in Japan that’s using a seaweed-based material to develop a zero-waste packaging solution. Amam’s product is called Agar Plasticity. Agar is a gelatinous substance that’s derived from algae, and in Japan, it’s often used in sweets, and you can buy it right off the shelf.

That’s how the Amam designers got their hands on the agar. “When we visited a local supermarket in Tokyo, we found agar and were attracted by its material qualities—delicacy, crispness, and airy-ness,” says Kosuke Araki, one of the Amam designers. Stores sell agar in block, flake, and powder form; Amam uses it in powder form. To convert that powder into a plastic packaging substitute, Araki says they create a liquid agar solution, and freeze it in a mold. Achieving the right degree of cushioning required a great deal of trial and error during Amam’s early days, but by April, they had a prototype. Araki used the agar box to ship a glass perfume bottle to Milan, where he would be traveling for Milan Design Week. Upon arrival, the perfume bottle was intact.

Amam’s efforts are still nascent. “What we can produce now is something functional yet a bit like craft,” says Araki of the rough-hewn quality of the packaging. He adds that he and his design partners are still using their personal freezers to test new pieces of Agar Plasticity. Support from other industries and the science community will help gain momentum, Araki says.

Mushrooming in scale

Halfway around the world, in Sweden, a bigger, broader bio-based packaging initiative is in the works. This is the second of the aforementioned “two big moments,” and it’s happening at the headquarters of IKEA of Sweden AB. In February, IKEA announced that it would begin to explore mushroom-based packaging, to replace EPS-based packaging, which doesn’t recycle or break down. IKEA is currently working with Ecovative, a biomaterials company in upstate New York, on early prototypes.

Mushroom-based packaging consists primarily of mycelium, a fiber that grows at the root of a fungus. The material acts as a natural binder for other more stalwart materials, like straws from corn, that can form the frame of a piece of packaging. Puneet Trehan, a programme manager in the new business and innovation division of IKEA, describes the design process as putting the inoculated material—the mycelium fibers and corn straws—into a mold, which then need five to seven days of growth time. After that, the newly shaped material gets baked, to suppress further growth. “Then, the packaging is ready.”

Mycelium products are known to be light and durable—both are crucial qualities for packaging material. The lightweightness, especially, can help companies offset their environmental footprint. Plus, today, there are ways to test new materials to ensure that reduced weight doesn’t compromise a product’s viability to make it through the supply chain. Consider Dassault Systèmes’s virtual testing: the program can digitally simulate how a design will behave from blow-molding to labeling to capping to palleting. These small steps can save massive amounts of waste in the end, given the amount of material a company like IKEA needs. “We were using a couple of thousand tons of EPS per year,” Trehan says of the furniture company, before it decided to move away from EPS in packaging. These are small, incremental beginnings for bio-based packaging—but they are, indeed, steps. “Unfortunately, as a human race we have failed in recycling,” Vega says of the need for alternatives to plastic packaging. Luckily, bio-based packaging is coming into its own. “I think it’s at the very forefront.”

 

 

To discuss this and other topics about the future of technology, finance, life sciences and more, join the Future Realities discussion on LinkedIn.

This article was produced by Quartz creative services and not by the Quartz editorial staff.

New frontiers and costs of recycling

By Catherine
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Written by Catherine Bolgar

open dumpster full of trash

Are we recycling all we could? Organic waste, such as food scraps and yard trimmings, accounts for between a quarter and a third of the solid waste generated in cities—the largest single municipal waste stream, according to Eric A. Goldstein, waste expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York.

If you had to identify one key area of growth for recycling, it would be organics,” he says.

Organic waste in landfills becomes mummified or decomposes anaerobically (i.e. without oxygen), producing methane, a greenhouse gas whose impact on climate change is estimated to be 25 times greater than that of carbon dioxide.

Composted organic waste though becomes a natural fertilizer that helps soil retain moisture and hold carbon. A University of California Berkeley study found that a single application of compost led to a metric ton of carbon capture and storage per hectare annually, for three years.

However, “composting if done well isn’t cheap,” says Glenda Gies, principal of Glenda Gies & Associates Inc., an Ontario-based recycling consultancy. “It requires the right temperature, moisture levels and bacteria populations.”

There’s also the question of who’s responsible for the recycling. With plastic or electronics products, the brand is usually identifiable, even on discarded goods. The manufacturer may then be legally required to recycle them. But by the time organics become waste it’s no longer clear who the brand owner is, and recovery costs then pass to the municipality, consumer or business, “who have been reluctant to pay,” Ms. Gies says.

This hasn’t deterred some city and state authorities from taking a lead. San Francisco has introduced mandatory separate collection of compostable materials, which applies to all residences and businesses, says Kevin Drew, residential and special projects zero-waste coordinator at the city’s department of environment. Massachusetts banned food waste disposal by companies in 2014, sending organics to 49 processors.

Once there, organic waste is processed into methane through digesters (like at sewage treatment plants). And unlike landfills where the methane escapes, the digesters trap it and convert it into natural gas, while the residue is turned into compost. San Francisco and its service provider are building digesters, with the resulting gas used to fuel collection and transfer vehicles, Mr. Drew says.

There’s complete recovery of the energy and compost value in the waste,” he says. “I would argue that this program will be coming to every city in the world.”

colored clothingOther materials also have strong recycling potential. Only 15% of used clothes, towels, bedding and other textiles in the U.S. is donated or recycled, according to the Council for Textile Recycling, with the rest ending up in landfills. In the U.K., about 40% of clothing is re-used or recycled. But more can be done.

“There’s an enormous amount of textiles that are recoverable as clothing,” says Mr. Drew. “There are markets around the world that will take that material. We’re on a quest to recover more textiles.

Cost is key. With traditional recycling streams, such as paper, plastics and glass, changes in technology and commodity prices affect the willingness to recycle.

“Companies want to recycle to save money,” says John Daniel, president of Federal International Inc., a St. Louis recycling firm. “In general, companies will increase recycling to the point where it costs them money, and then they stop.”

Recycling bin with glassConsider glass recycling. When collected along with other waste materials, broken glass has to be sifted out at sorting facilities. This may have been worth doing when glass prices were high, but today, “at many facilities, it’s not cost effective to separate out that glass. A significant amount of glass put in recycling doesn’t get recycled,” he says.

Similarly, “when the price of oil was much higher, carpet was able to be recycled,” he notes. “Now it is almost impossible to recycle without the cost being higher than landfilling. The cost of recovering, transporting and processing the material is significantly higher than the value of the material.”

Virgin products may seem cheaper, Ms. Gies says. But if one were to factor in environmental costs—reflected in, say, greenhouse-gas taxes or obligations on manufacturers to recycle returned products—the resulting higher price might be more realistic, and potentially uncompetitive.

“The industry naturally will recover all material demand, provided it is cost effective,” Mr. Daniel explains. “As the price goes up, then recyclers have the ability to dive in deeper and start recovering higher-cost material. The best way to increase recycling rates is to improve the demand for products made from recycled materials. Our industry will take care of filling the supply.”

 

Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe. For more from Catherine Bolgar, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion on LinkedIn.

Photos courtesy of iStock

How can technology protect natural resources?

By Alyssa
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In recent years, due to growth in places like China and India and increasing urbanization, demand for natural resources has dramatically increased. Natural resources companies are under pressure to provide the materials to feed that growing appetite – while at the same time protecting the environment and local communities where the resources are found. Because these resources can take millions of years to replace, it’s critical to be very aware of where the resources are so that we can understand the available inventory and the costs of extracting them.

Marni millions of years-001
 

In a new video produced by Wall Street Journal Custom Studios for 3DS’s LinkedIn community, Future Realities, Dassault Systèmes Vice President of Natural Resources, Marni Rabasso, explores how technology can address these concerns. Click here to watch the 3-minute video and then jump over to LinkedIn to comment!



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