Environmentalist dreams of fighting pollution with seaweed
Algopack, a minnow of the French biochemistry industry, swaps oil for seaweed to make plastic.
Given current barrel prices and the pollution caused by oil production worldwide, making plastic with seaweed instead of oil seems like a great idea. Remy Lucas comes from a family of Breton “wrackers” (seaweed gatherers) and has drawn on his experience in the petrochemicals industry to make this idea, first conceived 15 years ago, a reality.
Now, his dream is about to come true. The company Algopack, which he founded five years ago, is now a market leader in this technology for transforming seaweed. The principle is seemingly simple: extract a powder from brown seaweed and add plant additives to produce granules that can then be used by plastics manufacturers to make end products. This material has many uses, from laminates for furniture to caps and lids, plant pots and even funeral urns. However, it isn’t suitable for all applications. Unlike Algoblend, the first product launched by the company, which is made up of 50 percent seaweed and 50 percent plastic, this latest product (“Algopack”) is made entirely from seaweed, meaning that it is not transparent but rather dark brown in colour. Although it is possible to bulk-dye the product, it can hardly become clear. As Lucas himself acknowledges, “We’ll never get into the water bottle market.”
Protecting the Environment
Despite this minor drawback, there are many advantages to using seaweed as a raw material. This natural resource exists in unlimited quantities and although it is seasonal, it can be farmed. Which is precisely what Algopack is doing with aquaculturalists in Saint-Malo bay in Brittany. Seaweed can even be stored for many years. Secondly, it is cheap; it just needs to be harvested from the sea. In addition to this, the industrial waste produced by seaweed (from which the cosmetics industry has already succeeded in extracting certain substances) is even cheaper and does the job just as well. As a result, Algopack sells at 1,500 euros (US$1,696) per ton, as compared with 2,000 euros for most bioplastics (made from cereals or sugar cane) and 1,200 euros for plastic. Finally, it is environmentally friendly. Seaweed does not need any fertilizer or pesticides and can grow in very little water. It stores carbon dioxide (961 kilos per ton as it grows) and gives out oxygen, which is vital to the growth of plankton. Once they reach the end of their life, the end products take twelve weeks to biodegrade in soil (as compared with four to ten centuries for standard plastics) and just five hours in the sea. In both cases, they act as fertilizers. It should also be noted that this material does not contain bisphenol A or phthalates.
Applications around the World
Lucas’ work has already earned him recognition. In 2011, he won the Crisalide Eco- activites and Innova’Bio competitions and last year he took the Total-BFM Business Award for green chemistry. Algopack even offers hope to those living in the West Indies and Guyana, where coastal areas are being swamped by unprecedented volumes of gulfweed. The Seventh Continent Expedition, which promotes the development of alternatives to plastic, has joined forces with Algopack to solve this problem. The good news is that Algopack’s tests have shown that its process does work with this species of seaweed. The process has also shown positive results in tests carried out in several different continents, in Japan, China, South Africa, Chile and Canada. These promising results mean that Algopack now plans to license its process to local manufacturers.
Lucas nonetheless remains cautious. “We chose to secure the resource before signing any con- tracts, rather than risk not being able to meet demand.” As a result, production only got under way in 2013 and the company’s turnover remains modest at 120,000 euros in May 2015. It is expected to reach 1 million euros over the course of the next financial year. The company’s work has attracted many clients, including Leclerc (trolley tokens), Orange (mobile phone cases), Sagemcom (Liveboxes) and Biocoop (fittings for 300 shops).
Although Algopack is currently still in the pilot phase, the company plans to accelerate its development and is expected to start industrial production in 2016. Its 12-hectare seaweed farm has to be extended to 145 hectares and the production plant is moving to new 1,000-square-meter premises. “In five years’ time, we expect to achieve a turnover of around thirty million euros and create some thirty new jobs,” Lucas explains. The company is currently running a fundraising campaign as expansion on this scale will require more than 5 million euros in investment.
Although oil companies around the world are also showing an interest in this market, this is not the last we will hear about this new method of cleaning up the planet, at a time when nearly 269,000 tons of plastic waste is floating in the earth’s oceans.