Despite the global call to “reduce, reuse and recycle” to cut plastic use, the production of this synthetic material has only increasedsince the 1970s. UNEP data shows that global production of primary plastic will touch 1,100 million tonnes by 2050.

Nearly half of this is designed for one-time use. Recycling is an option, but 85 per cent ends up in landfills or oceans, as using virgin raw materials is cheaper than recycling.

Microplastics pollute the ocean, the air, and our bodies. If no action is taken, there will be more plastic in the sea than fish by 2050, according to the Ellen McArthur Foundation. How do we tackle this problem? One solution could be using plastics that can degrade.

Mumbai-based start-up Zerocircle is exploring alternatives to single-use plastics and has been shortlisted for the $1.2-million Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize.

Its founder and director, Neha Jain, left her job at Google to pursue entrepreneurship in 2011. Her work with NGOs in the sustainability field spurred her to focus on ways to solve the plastic waste problem.

Jain realised that even earth-based alternatives, like cloth and metals, involve an environmental cost — such as the water-intensive cultivation of cotton, and the loss of biodiversity and pollution caused by mining. “I started researching new materials and resources… One day, I found seaweed and thought, ‘My life has changed’,” she reminisces. She launched Zerocircle in July 2020.

Why seaweed?

Seaweed is the common name for plankton, and it packs a punch — if 9 per cent of the ocean surface is afforested with seaweed, it would remove 53 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year. Acidification of oceans can be reversed in just a decade.

Seaweed could also be used to make bioplastics —  plastic material made from renewable biomass sources — and it is more sustainable compared with agricultural sources such as corn and sugarcane. “If you want to create bioplastics from agricultural products, it would take 7 per cent of arable land [to cultivate them],” Jain says, besides needing fertilisers and freshwater, among other inputs. Seaweed, on the other hand, is easier to cultivate and can be harvested within 30 to 40 days.

“Naturally growing seaweed is not plucked out (from the oceans). The cultivation technique, if done correctly, will make the water cleaner. When seaweed grows, it absorbs excess nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon dioxide in the oceans,” Jain notes.

Seaweed cultivation becomes an additional source of income for fisher families.

The company uses sun-dried seaweed — red, green and brown algae, among other species — sourced from Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Maharashtra. After it is harvested, the seaweed is dried and powdered. Carbohydrates are extracted, gelatinised and processed to produce a flexible plastic film roll.

Viable replacement

Zerocircle’s focus is to find a viable degradable replacement for single-use clear plastic packaging for gadgets, food and fashion products

“We need transparency, strength, hydrophobicity, ‘sealability’, printability,” says Jain, adding that without these the product finds no use.

Apart from meeting industry standards, Zerocircle’s products are also home compostable in six weeks. They will break down within hours if they enter the ocean, proving harmless to marine life.

“A large part of our work is R&D,” Jain says. The company has filed for a patent for creating a more industry-friendly packaging material from seaweed.

“We haven’t filed a patent for the production side yet, or for production at a large scale, as we are still running our trials. That could take a few months,” she says. The company is looking to produce flexible film rolls by the end of the calendar year. Jain is working on licensing the technology with existing partners and/or manufactures.

The clients range from FMCG to food companies, fashion companies and personal care or homecare brands. “We are also looking to work with companies in the e-commerce space,” Jain adds.

A future in bioplastics?

“Petroleum products have been around for 70 years. The economies of scale have reached a point where it is the cheapest thing on the planet. For any alternative to get there, it will take time,” Jain observes, adding that brands have started looking for alternatives to plastic with a sense of urgency.

There are approximately 700 species of marine algae in the inter-tidal and deepwater regions of the Indian coast, of which 60 are commercially important. In 2021, the Centre had announced a major initiative to increase seaweed production in the country to 11.5 lakh tonnes over the next five years. It also earmarked ₹640 crore for developing the industry.

With support from government and industry, the future looks bright for bioplastics.