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May 2024

How to Break Paper from Plastic

Paper has been making a comeback. Growing concerns about plastic pollution and the connection between traditional plastics and the petroleum industry spurred a search for alternatives. Paper or paperboard (aka fiber materials) now account for roughly 30% of the global packaging market. We feel good about paper because of its biobased origin, biophilic look and feel, and its degradability and recyclability.

Despite fiber’s sustainable halo, it has several challenges. Fiber often requires more material compared to plastic for the same application, which can make it more expensive. Fiber also does not have moisture, grease, or gas barrier properties. Plastic coatings (such polyethylene or “PE”) and chemical additive chemistries (such as compounds from the Perfluorinated Alkyl class, or “PFAS”) are used to improve the durability and barrier performance of paper. The result is packaging made of fibers mixed with chemistry that complicates the operations of recycling and composting facilities, pollutes the environment, and potentially causes harm to human health.

Most single use paper cups are lined with a PE layer that provides the moisture barrier and is also the glue that holds the cup together. The ability to heat seal plastic coated paper is one of the performance characteristics of plastics that makes it appealing in multi-layer packaging designs. Polyethylene coatings contaminate recycling streams and have the potential to leach into food and beverages.

Research showing the presence of PFAS in fast food packaging led to recent voluntary restrictions and state and local bans. The Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) also stopped certifying compostable food packaging that contains PFAS in 2020. The FDA released a statement earlier this year announcing that PFAS has been removed from grease proofing applications in food contact packaging. PFAS still shows up in products using recycled pulp, including toilet paper and paper straws.

The stage is set for innovations that address paper’s performance issues and would enable it to compete with plastic. We grouped the new technologies by challenge, as defined by the function and product category combination.

Challenge #1: water and grease resistance in molded fiber products. The incumbent chemistry here is PFAS, added to the wet pulp. A new alternative chemistry is the Contour chemistry from Solenis, also added to the wet pulp. It is similar in performance, priced at a slight premium to PFAS, BPI certified, compostable and re-pulpable.

Challenge #2: water and grease resistance coatings for paper and flexible packaging. The incumbent chemistry is again PFAS added to pulp, or petroleum-based coatings such as PE, waxes or acrylates. New alternative chemistries being developed include lignin based coatings by Earthodic, Sol-Gel coatings by Papkot and SgMA, and cellulose based coatings developed by Sustanix. These are all young companies at the research, testing, or early customer trials stage. Some of the established paper chemistry companies such as Kemira (FennoGuard), Kotkamills (Alaska), and Solenis (Topscreen) have also developed PFAS and PE free coating chemistries that are commercially available.

Challenge #3: paper cups. The incumbent chemistry in paper cups is laminated PE film that heat-seals the paper cups and provides the moisture barrier that makes them able to hold liquids. Alternatives include bio-based materials such as Polylactic Acid (PLA) film laminates from Natureworks. PLA coatings work and enable composting in industrial facilities, but come at a premium to PE laminates. There are also companies, including the already mentioned Earthodic, Papkot, Kotkamills, and Solenis, that are selling or developing dispersion coatings that may work with paper cups, but there are also some challenges to solve related to the heat-sealing role of PE in cup construction.

Challenge #4: heat-sealed film packaging. The incumbent technology is again PE film laminates, with some use of waxes or acrylates. Alternatives being developed include bio-based polymers and dispersions that are heat sealable including seaweed based films by Kelpi and NotPLA, and protein based films by Lactips and Xampla. Commercial solutions include dispersion chemistries from Kemira (FennoGuard), Kotkamills (Alaska), and Solenis (Topscreen), and bio-based polymers from Natureworks (PLA) and Futamura (the cellulose based Natureflex).


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Agteria, a producer of animal feed additive to reduce methane emissions from cattle, raised $1.5 million.

Amara, an organic baby food brand, raised $20 million.

Aquabattery, a company developing an energy storage system using saltwater, raised $6.4 million., maker of waterless personal care products, like shower gel and shampoo that you mix with tap water at home, raised a $22.7 million.

Alt.Leather, maker of plant-based leather-like materials, raised $1.1 million.

Bioform Technologies, a company developing bio-based, compostable materials, raised $3.7 million.

Breaking, a company using engineered microorganisms to degrade various types of plastic waste, raised $10.5 million.

Cauldron Ferm, a precision fermentation company operating facilities to produce sustainable, plant-based proteins, raised $6.25 million.

CleanFiber, a company that makes cellulosic insulation material from recycled carboard, raised $28 million.

Cyclize, developer of a plasma technology to convert waste plastics and carbon dioxide into chemical feedstocks, raised $5.4 million.

Edonia, a company creating protein ingredients using microalgae, raised €2 million.

Glacier, a company using software and robotics to sort recyclable items more efficiently and accurately, raised $7.7 million.

GreenSpark, a company developing software that helps metal recycling businesses improve operations, raised $9.4 million.

Gridcog, a company developing software to help companies monitor their actions toward sustainability, raised $4.2 million.

HutanBio, developer of biodegradable plastic alternatives using agricultural waste, raised $2.8 million.

Izote Biosciences, a company aiming to lower the cost of fermentation by introducing a metabolic pathway that does not require oxygen, raised $2.6 million.

Kubik, a manufacturer converting plastic waste into building materials, raised $1.9 million.

Kuehnle AgroSystems, producer of astaxanthin, a red pigment and antioxidant used in aquaculture, skincare, and food supplements, raised $3 million.

Layup Parts, a developer of technology to improve composite manufacturing, raised $9 million.

Lingrove, a creator of biophilic composite materials with applications in building, consumer goods, and auto, raised $10 million.

The Mediterranean Food Lab, a company selling natural flavor enhancers designed for meat alternatives, raised $17 million.

Minu, a premium mineral-based sunscreen, secured an undisclosed amount of capital from XRC Ventures, Selva Ventures.

Nfinite Nanotech, a company developing gas barrier coatings that maintain recyclability and compostability, raised $6.5 million.

Novocarbo, a company developing a pyrolysis technology that produces biochar, raised $27.1 million.

Pascal, developer of solid refrigerants that are more environmentally friendly and energy-efficient than traditional gas refrigerants, raised $8 million.

Poseidona, a company making protein from algae waste and invasive biomass, raised $1.2 million.

Sway, a producer of seaweed-based film packaging, raised $5 million.

Tau Group, a company developing protective coatings for wires raised $11.9 million.

Terragia Biofuel, a company seeking to produce biofuels from plant-based materials, raised $6 million.

Tierra Biosciences, a custom protein synthesis company, raised $11.4 million.

TrusTrace, a company that helps fashion brands track and manage their supply chains' sustainability and ethical aspects, raised $24 million.

Vitalfluid, a company that offers sustainable alternatives to traditional agrochemicals and disinfectants, raised $5.3 million.

Windfall Bio, a company that converts methane waste into fertilizer using microbes, raised $28 million.

Xampla, a company producing biodegradable plastic alternatives from crop waste, raised a $7 million round.

ZymoChem, a precision fermentation company producing biobased ingredients for textiles and plastics, raised $21 million.




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