Seaweed is one of the fastest growing organisms on the planet, at half a metre per day, and could solve the problem
of non-biodegradable packaging. Image credit: Skipping Rocks Lab

J dropcapulianna Photopoulos writes in Horizon EU Research and Innovation magazine that UK start-up Skipping Rocks Lab aims to use natural materials extracted from plants and seaweed to create waste-free alternatives to single-use plastics, such as bottles, cups and plates. In 2013, it introduced its first product, Ooho, an edible water bottle made from brown seaweed. Now, the company wants to use brown seaweed to make a sustainable paper cup for takeaway drinks through a project called UCUP.

“It’s becoming really obvious, the effects plastic has on the environment,” said Rodrigo García González, co-founder and co-CEO of the Skipping Rocks Lab. “Society is becoming more aware that this is a big problem and we need solutions from institutions, companies and consumers.”

“You use a coffee cup for half an hour maximum and then it’s going to be in the environment for probably 700 years. That’s a big mismatch in terms of use and shelf life,” he said.

The idea is to use seaweed as a bio-based, biodegradable and recyclable container in disposable food packaging, which is also waterproof and thermal-resistant. To date, paper cups are often lined or coated with plastic such as polyethylene (PE) or oil-based waxes to prevent the liquid from leaking out or soaking through the paper. This makes them difficult to recycle, says Mr. García González.

In addition, cups that claim to be 100% biodegradable or compostable are usually made from polylactic acid (PLA), a polyester derived from renewable resources such as starches, which still takes a long time to break down.

Instead, seaweed packaging can decompose in soil in about four to six weeks. As seaweed is cheap, easy to harvest and extract, and is available on every coastline, it could replace the plastic liner inside most takeaway cups and provide the same properties as current oil-based ones at competitive prices.

UCUP has completed its first stage of research to see whether there is a potential market for non-plastic disposable takeaway cups and is now planning to develop, test and commercialize the cups.

The work is part of a concerted effort to move away from reliance on plastic, which, as well as not being easy to break down, is traditionally made from fossil fuels. Mr. García González points out that the UK government is considering taxing items such as disposable coffee cups in the same way it does plastic bags, while some coffee chains give customers a discount when they use their own cup.

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