Australian clean technology startup ULUU will combat climate change by capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and into bioplastic products. The company will produce a natural material from seaweed with a microbial fermentation process that can create all kinds of plastics. These products are home compostable, biodegradable, and carbon negative.
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CO2 emissions have led to extreme climate change in the last two hundred years, contributing significantly to global warming and ocean acidification.
Plastic pollution is ubiquitous around the world today. It is not simply single-use straws and water bottles that is causing this damage, but everything from clothing to cosmetics to cars that use plastic which ends up in the environment.
Plastic consumption has increased 400% in the last three decades, accounting for 3.4% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Nine point two billion tonnes of plastic waste are generated every year, and less than a tenth of this is successfully recycled.
In Australia, one million tonnes of single-use plastic are consumed annually, with a 12% recycling rate. Seventy-five per cent of the plastic found on Australia’s coastline is single-use.
A UN-led pledge to end plastic pollution by 2040 was recently signed by 20 countries including Ghana, Rwanda, Chile, France, Belgium, Canada, and the UK. Australia did not sign the pledge, but it has embarked on national targets for packaging to be manufactured only with reusable, recyclable, or compostable materials and for 70% of all plastic packaging to be recycled or composted by 2025.
The Australian government-backed science organization CSIRO has invested in a Perth-based startup, ULUU, in order to help the country meet these targets.
ULUU’s Natural Polymers
ULUU will produce a flexible range of bioplastics that can replace many (although not all) of the fossil fuel-based plastic materials in use today. These natural polymers can be used in packaging, clothing, single-use items, accessories, and a host of other applications.
The polymer is made out of seaweed and has a net negative impact on CO2 levels in the environment. A clean production process will use seaweed along with other ocean renewable resources such as seawater and microbes that live in seawater to manufacture biopolymers for industrial use.
The company was founded by Dr. Julia Reisser and Michael Kingsbury. Reisser mapped microplastic pollution in Australian waters for her Ph.D., and then worked for the philanthropic Minderoo Foundation analyzing the role played by startups in dealing with plastic pollution.
While at Minderoo, Reisser got the idea to use seaweed and microbial processes to create carbon-negative plastic products that could replace fossil fuel-based plastic. She found that other bioplastic production methods using crops like sugarcane or corn have unwanted environmental impacts related to land use changes and food scarcity.
Kingsbury was a Minderoo colleague of Reisser’s, and she approached him to help set up ULUU due to his experience in business management. In 2020, ULUU was launched, and in 2021, the company raised $1.8 million in investment.
When fully operational, ULUU will produce a flexible range of durable but biodegradable PHAs (polyhydroxyalkanoates) that can replace fossil fuel-based plastics.
Using Fermentation to Make Plastic Out of Seaweed
ULUU’s process involves fermentation using microbes that live in saltwater. This means that the process does not rely on freshwater (a limited resource) but seawater instead.
The process enables continuous fermentation without the need for lengthy sterilization procedures. This reduces costs, increases manufacturing throughput, and avoids greenhouse gas emissions.
ULUU says that this process is more scalable than other bioplastic production methods and that it closely resembles wine and beer production. This means that engineers from the beverages industry can transfer to bioplastic production with relative ease.
Benefits of Using Seaweed
Unlike some other crops used for bioplastic production, seaweed can be produced sustainably in a cost-effective manner without the need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
While it is growing, the farmed seaweed that ULUU will use takes in 20 times as much CO2 as forests (relative to biomass) through photosynthesis.
Seaweed also does not displace land that could otherwise be farmed or rewilded for environmental purposes, it does not require fertilizers, and it grows three times faster than plants on land. Growing seaweed combats ocean acidification and eutrophication. Further, it can do all of this without requiring any freshwater.
In fact, wild seaweed is already performing an important job in reducing or limiting CO2 levels in the environment. Almost a third of wild seaweed’s biomass sinks to the ocean floor, where the carbon it has sequestered cannot be released into the atmosphere or hydrosphere through chemical processes like degradation or burning. As well as CO2, seaweed also removes nitrogen from the ocean (a harmful effect of human sewage and fertilizer pollution).
Growing seaweed also creates habitats for marine life, increasing biodiversity in the ocean. ULUU says the people growing seaweed are often vulnerable, women, and living in poverty. Creating a market for farmed seaweed, therefore, tackles this social issue as well.
Next Steps for ULUU
Investors have responded positively to ULUU’s message and recently poured $8.6 million into the company in another round of funding. It will use these funds to build a pilot facility and begin production.
Some of the startup investors are “impact investors” that will expect environmental as well as financial returns on their investment. Environmental returns will be measured in tonnes of fossil fuel-based plastic replaced and carbon-negative production.
ULUU says its pilot plant will be up and running before the end of 2023.
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References and Further Reading
CSIRO on a mission to end plastic waste. (2022) [Online] CSIRO. Available at: https://www.csiro.au/en/news/news-releases/2022/csiro-on-a-mission-to-end-plastic-waste
Dedovic, A. (2022). Tame Impala-backed biotech ULUU raises $8m as it looks to combat plastic waste with seaweed. [Online] Business News Australia. Available at: https://www.businessnewsaustralia.com/articles/tame-impala-backed-biotech-uluu-raises-8m-as-it-looks-to-combat-plastic-waste-with-seaweed.html
Pacheco, D., et al (2022). Seaweed-Based Polymers from Sustainable Aquaculture to “Greener” Plastic Products. Sustainable Global Resources of Seaweeds. doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-91955-9_31.
Jones, T. (2022). ULUU raises $8 million to combat plastic with seaweed and saltwater brewing. [Online] Smart Company. Available at: https://www.smartcompany.com.au/startupsmart/startupsmart-technology/uluu-raises-8-million-plastic-seaweed/
Shu, C. (2022). ULUU wants to solve the plastic crisis with seaweed. [Online] Tech Crunch. Available at: https://techcrunch.com/2022/11/15/uluu-wants-to-solve-the-plastic-crisis-with-seaweed/
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