Interview with Notpla: the future of sustainable packaging
allmanhall interview with Notpla
Our Sustainability Manager, Theo Kuehn, sat down with Hoa Doan (Head of Sustainability and Impacts) and Niall Russell (Head of Marketing) from Notpla, a sustainable packaging company based in London, to talk about packaging, the challenges associated, and what the future might look like…
TK: First things first, What is Notpla?
N.R: Notpla is the brainchild of Pierre Paslier and Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez, who – as part of a project during their studies at Imperial University – were researching ways to transport liquid using only natural materials. After countless trials, they stumbled upon Seaweed, realising that the alginate elements could be extracted to create similar barrier properties as those we’re used to in plastics, but without the long-lasting negative impacts.
With this innovation, Notpla’s first product – Ooho – was born. Used first by Lucozade to reduce plastic at events such as the London Marathon, these edible liquid bubbles are made entirely of seaweed and are entirely edible. Following this success and growing popularity, the team’s ambitions broadened, realising the opportunity to replace single-use plastic in even more day-to-day situations. With this widened scope, Notpla’s mission was established; to help restore planetary health.
In Europe alone we produce over 8 billion pieces of takeaway packaging each year, the vast majority of which are made with plastic. These products are designed to hold something for only a couple of minutes before being disposed of, yet because of the materials at their core, the impact on the planet can last for hundreds or thousands of years.
The scale of this issue made it an obvious focus for our team with our seaweed-based material was found to be ideal for coating takeaway containers, offering a replacement for the hidden layer of plastic that’s normally applied to the inside of these boxes, stopping their contents leaking and destroying the paper board.
Now being produced at industrial scale and used by millions of consumers around Europe, our seaweed coated packaging is compostable, recyclable, and naturally biodegrades within 6 weeks.
TK: Has there been any challenges with using seaweed? Are you worried about the supply chain or scaling up, especially in the face of ocean acidification and other environmental concerns?
N.R: There’s already a global supply chain around seaweed. It’s in everything, from cosmetics or chemicals, so expanding it to encompass Notpla hasn’t been a challenge. N.R Plus, from a social perspective, as more people move away from eating fish, seaweed offers a great other industry for those employed in the seafood industry as tastes begin to shift – our B Corp accreditation helps us to examine the positive impact that Notpla can make, not just through sustainable solutions but in the wider world around us.
H.D: It also doesn’t have any of the negative byproducts of other plastics and bioplastics. Our testing lab looks more like a food chemistry station than a scientific laboratory. No hazmat suits required! We have our own onsite wormery, where we can see that everything we produce disappears back into the earth within weeks. We hold ourselves to the highest standards when it comes to helping the planet.
TK: What have been some of the biggest challenges? The world of sustainable products is full of false claims and complex issues- how has it been for you to navigate this minefield?
H.D: Education is always a challenge. We’re a pioneer in this space so there’s a lot of work informing Customers, Businesses, and Policy makers about who we are and what we do.
N.R: Lots of customers don’t even realise that their takeaway containers are lined with plastics that aren’t typically recycled. Having to explain to them first that it’s a problem, and that we’re the solution can be tricky at times. There’s also a lot of greenwashing at the moment, with companies claiming their products are sustainable when in reality they’re not. Look at all the bio-plastics that require industrial composting and treatment to break down. Having to demonstrate what makes us special in the face of these claims is a challenge, but achievable through us being completely transparent in what we are and what we do. Winning the Earthshot award from Prince William was a great opportunity.
H.D: There have also been some issues with LCAs (Life Cycle Assessments) that examine the end-to-end impacts of products. Traditionally, the methodology used for these is unsuited to map the long-term impacts of plastic pollution and the micro-plastics that are produced. We’ve completed LCAs for the vast majority of our products, and continue to educate our customers on the challenges, and why Notpla is the answer.
N.R: On the flip side, some of our biggest benefits are how scalable and seamless our products are- there’s no change in behaviour for the end user, it’s treated just like other products. The same can be said for the manufacturing process. It’s exactly the same for our suppliers to coat the boxes with our membranes. With sustainable products, there’s sometimes the need for a sacrifice or behavioural change, which can lead to consumers being quite hesitant. By removing this challenge adoption rates have been much higher- all that matters are businesses providing the right packaging. Lots of customers are showing they’re not willing to support businesses that don’t align with their values, so simple steps like these are great, painless ways for businesses to show their commitment to the environment.
T.K: I’m glad you mentioned that, just in case our readers don’t know in 2022, you won the Earthshot Prize for helping to build a waste-free world. What was this like? How it has impacted the business?
N.R: It was an amazing thing for us and our mission. Not many companies have had a future king eating their product in front of an international audience!
The funding has majorly helped us scale up our operations, growing our team and capabilities.
H.D: It’s been fantastic in growing our network, helping us get our seat at the table, and making contacts with other firms. Sustainability is a collaborative mission so working with like-minded businesses is essential. We now have partnerships with some of the largest takeaway and food supply companies in the world.
T.K: That sounds amazing, and fantastic to see businesses being recognised for groundbreaking innovations, especially when there’s a lot of pessimism surrounding sustainability. So, what’s next for Notpla?
N.R: We’re always looking to expand the variety of sizes and shapes across our range of sustainable packaging for food, to help cover any consumer need. This, coupled with our growth is allowing us to continue to lower the prices of our products, bringing them closer to the price of the less sustainable options on the market. At the start, it was almost a pound to produce one box, but now we’re only a couple of pence more than the alternatives. As we continue to grow this gap will get more and more narrow and our traction is proof that businesses are very willing to make this small concession on behalf of the planet’s health.
H.D: Excitingly, the Netherlands has been the first nation to certify Notpla as a product that aligns with the UN Plastic directive and can therefore be sold without any form of plastic tax. If other European nations follow suit then this would be huge in limiting the amount of microplastics that are being produced. The UKs single-use plastic ban is similarly a good step in the right direction but allows for a lot more loopholes. At the end of the day, it’s the customers that will help bring change, and we’re seeing a lot of UK businesses happy and willing to change their actions to try and be more sustainable, including paying a premium for products that have a genuine positive impact.
T. K: When our clients get their hands on your packaging, what’s the best way to dispose of it when they’re done?
N.R: Our hierarchy of preference is:
1. Recycle: all of our packaging can enter existing paper waste streams without causing problems (unlike, PLA for example) and the paper fibres can be recovered. This is our first recommendation.
2. Home compost: Throw it into your home compost and it will return to nature in around 6 weeks (often this is much faster, as shown in our in-house wormery where the packaging disappears in under 30 days).
3. General waste: Recognising that, in the real world, there is a high likelihood that food packaging will make its way into general waste, our packaging will return to nature just like a fruit peel leaving no chemicals, toxins, or microplastics behind.
T. K: Thank you so much- I think I speak for everyone when I say I can’t wait to see what Notpla do next.
If you’d like to learn more about Notpla or try the products for yourself, please get in touch with a member of the allmanhall team today.