An edible alternative to plastic has won the Green Alley award for innovation in the circular economy. It is one of several viable alternatives to single-use packaging.
Converting base metals to gold was the holy grail of medieval alchemists. Tempting, but unattainable. So what would be an equivalent search in the 21st century? How about turning the scourge of plastic waste into something useful, like the compost that nourishes the soil? Or even an edible snack?
It sounds as likely as alchemy. But it’s here, and it’s happening, thanks to the German startup. Without a trace. This women-run company has devised a technique to convert agricultural waste, such as starch or brewery waste, into a range of “plastic” films, coatings and rigid materials. Since the resulting materials are made entirely from plant waste, they are completely compostable and decompose in two to nine weeks, depending on their thickness. That means they can go directly to the compost bin in the house or be added to anaerobic digesters to help generate biogas.
They are even safe to eat, although the taste may leave something to be desired. And as Traceless co-founder Dr. Anne Lamp explains: “If they end up in our environment or in the oceans, they decompose completely into CO2 and H2O, leaving no residue, or are eaten by animals. [with no ill-effects]”.
Traceless co-founders Johanna Baare, left, and Dr. Anne Lamp. Image: Traceless
Innovation won Traceless this year Green Alley Award. Launched in 2014 by Landbell Group, a leading provider of chemical and environmental compliance solutions, the award recognizes and celebrates startups that are pushing the boundaries within the burgeoning circular economy.
Since Traceless uses agricultural waste, it does not compete for land with food crops, unlike, for example, some biofuels. It does not depend on additives, solvents or harmful chemicals. And compared to conventional oil-based plastics, the production methods save up to 87 percent when it comes to carbon emissions.
The goal of the Green Alley Award is to encourage startups like Traceless to solve pressing problems with circular thinking. As founder Jan Patrick Schulz, CEO of the Landbell Group, which organizes the award, says: “We want to foster business models that combine resource conservation with economic success in a holistic and bio-circular approach.” Without a trace, he says, he personified that goal.
The company is still in the pilot stage, building a plant that can produce enough material to test the market. The 25,000-euro (£ 21,530) prize pool, says Dr Lamp, will help it expand.
Traceless is among a number of innovators taking advantage of the growing public concern about plastic waste, which in turn has sparked a growing appetite for sustainable alternatives within the industry.
Politicians are also beginning to respond. The EU has announced a ban on some single-use plastics, which will take effect in July. This combination of regulatory pressure and market demand is opening fertile ground for innovation, and chewy packaging is fast becoming the flavor of the month.
Other edible alternatives to plastic
Instead of plastic water bottles, the 2019 London Marathon runners were given grocery bags filled with H2O to quench their thirst. Dreamed of Notpla, the beverage capsules are made from algae and plant materials, which can be swallowed whole or left to degrade as harmlessly as, well, algae on the shore.
Evoware He has also looked to the ocean for answers. It works with seaweed growers in Indonesia to harvest the raw material for its compostable cups and containers, which, like Notpla, are also safe to eat. Increasingly, seaweed is considered a source of healthy nutrients.
Researchers in the US are exploring a novel combination of cow’s milk and clay, which, when mixed together, can produce an ultra-thin and strong compostable material, so light and airy that it has been dubbed ‘solid smoke’. Its potential uses range from packaging to insulation, leaving no harmful residue behind.
Image: Robert Hrovat
Anyone justly appalled by photographs of turtles wrestling with plastic straws will be encouraged by Loliware’s ‘hypercompostable’ seaweed-based alternatives, safe for both humans and sea creatures.
Image: Francesco Ungaro
Lead Image: Traceless