This Edible Packaging Will Make You Reconsider Seaweed

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Many Westerners don't include seaweed in their regular greens consumption unless they're sushi enthusiasts, but more than 21 species of the high-protein stuff are used in Japan (and in other Asian cuisines) for everyday recipes, some of which easily can be traced back to the eighth century.

So it's hardly surprising that one entrepreneur behind the seaweed packaging being tested by Indonesian company Evoware is biotech expert Noryawati Mulyno.

The company, one of six recently recognized at the culmination of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's Circular Design Challenge for "new plastics," is testing a variety of packaging applications for bioplastics made from seaweed farmed in Indonesia waters.

"Our mission is to decrease the use of plastic, especially in packaging," said Edwin Aldrin Tan, Evoware co-founder and the Jakarta-based organization's business development and financial advisor. "At the same time, we'd like to increase the seaweed livelihood in our country."

Some of the wraps, such as those being piloted for power protein bars, burgers and waffles, are edible. Others, such as the ones for such dry foods as tea or instant noodles or cereal, are meant to dissolve quickly when liquid is introduced. Still others, notably those used for soaps or sanitary napkin packaging, will biodegrade over time. "We are exploring as many applications as possible," he said.

Tan, along with his co-founder David Christian, started experimenting with seaweed about two years ago, with the mission of replacing single-use cups. The result was Ello Jello, an edible cup that the company began commercializing in April 2016 and selling "bazaar to bazaar" to educate the marketplace about alternative approaches to disposable items.

Why seaweed?

The idea that seaweed might be a viable source for bioplastics isn't astonishingly new: The plant is rich in polysaccharides, a natural feedstock, and research into this field stretches back more than a decade. (Mulyono holds several patents in the field.) Evoware's co-founders apparently chose it for several reasons, including Indonesia's infamous stature as the world's second-largest contributor to the ocean plastics waste problem (China is No. 1) and an interest helping seaweed farmers in Indonesia improve their livelihood.

It takes one hectare of ocean to product 40 tons of dry seaweed annually; that volume absorbs 20.7 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions during the cultivation process. Evoware's main source of its seaweed during its pilot production is Sulawesi, an island to the east of Borneo.

One of the first companies using the edible packaging is Bruxel Waffle.

The process of turning the seaweed is highly manual (at least right now), involving the preparation (and drying) of the raw materials followed by the shaping, pressing and cutting of the material into a single-layer material that currently has a shelf life of two years without preservatives and that is appropriate for dry foods.
Tan described the packaging being used to test its concept as tasteless and odorless. (Flavors can be added if desired.) The outside layer is smooth, like plastics, but the inside is rough; the thickness can be controlled, depending on the sort of food or item being wrapped.

"We keep learning," Tan said.

He won't share other details about the formulation except to say that no chemicals are added along the way. When it comes to how the packaging is handled, Evoware treats the substance like other food substances for hygienic purposes, according to its marketing materials.

What's next

As with many emerging innovations, one of the largest objections to Evoware's business proposition is price: right now, its packaging is more expensive to use than conventional plastic.

The company is prioritizing how to scale production, and is working on ways to help its customers justify the investment, Tan said. One of the company's first publicly named reference accounts is Bruxel Waffle, which sells vegan Belgian Waffles at festivals in Bali. It's busy sending samples to consumer products companies in Europe, the United States and Australia. In addition, the company is working on a multilayered version of its material that might be better suited for liquids or semi-liquids: the secondary material is dammar gum, Tan said.

Evoware is just one of several companies experimenting with using seaweed as a bioplastics source for packaging. Other organizations conducting research include AMAM, a Japanese design company working on a product called Agar Plasticity, which uses agar harvested from red marine algae; Algix, a research collaboration backed by Kimberly-Clark that is mainly focused on working with algae; and France's AlgoPack, which also has created cups using seaweed.

A smattering of potential applications.
These materials are biodegradable, to varying degrees. What makes Evoware's work worth tracking, however, is its focus on exploring the edibility question: if you're on a hike in the middle of nowhere, the idea that the wrapper on the protein bar you snack on can be eliminated entirely is an attractive one.

Another company working on edible package with seaweed at its heart is Skipping Rocks Lab, which also happens to be another of the six winners in the aforementioned Circle Design Challenge. London-based Skipping Rocks Lab's product is called Delta, and the first proposed applications (as submitted for the contest) involves sachets for liquids, pastes or creams. The team's first product, Ooho, is an edible water bottle — shaped like a sphere — that can be consumed on the go. 

The Current State of Seaweed: Part II