In 2013, two students at Imperial College London had an idea. They would use natural materials to replace plastic packaging. And unlike all the multi-billion dollar corporations, they succeeded in coming up with a product. It’s called Notpla, and it could just change disposable packaging forever. By Jeremy Torr.
London, 30 April 2019. Imagine a disposable packaging material that is light, transparent, cheap and practical. Now wave a magic wand over it and make it disappear within a few weeks, and return to its native state – seaweed. There you have it – Notpla.
Notpla’s inventors, Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez, Pierre Paslier and Guillaume Couche started toying with the idea of using seaweed as a plastic substitute while studying at Imperial College London and the Royal College of Art. After a lot of experimentation, they came up with a workable process that allowed them to capture liquids inside a totally biodegradeable, waterproof skin. They made a video of their process, and in April 2017, raised just over one million dollars in a mere three days on crowdfunding platform Crowdcube on the strength of it.
The Notpla process takes a set quantity of liquid to be packaged - between 20-150ml - and freezes it into a ball. Then a special machine dips it into a gooey calcium chloride solution, which forms the base for the top layer of reconstituted brown seaweed extract. The longer the frozen ball is kept or re-dipped into the seaweed solution, the thicker the film and the stronger it gets. This means it can be adapted for a variety of sachet sizes for different drinks or liquid contents.
"The main point in manipulating the water as solid ice during the encapsulation is to make it possible to get bigger spheres and (at the same time) allow the calcium and (seaweed extract) to stay exclusively in the membrane," said González in a recent interview.
As you might expect, the Notpla membrane, although you can eat it as you drink or eat the contents, doesn’t taste that great. “… the jelly texture around [the bottles] is something we are still getting used to," he admits, noting that the packaging taste had been compared to breast implants or jellyfish, despite most testers not having tasted either before.
Notpla’s biggest success to date was at the recent London Marathon, where an estimated 200,000 Notpla sachets filled with Lucozade Sport drink were handed out to runners as they neared the end of the race. Marathoners were told to pop the sachets (called Oohos) into their mouth, and bite onto them like a cherry tomato. Then they could swallow the liquid, and choose to either also swallow the edible membrane or spit it out. Swallowed Oohos would be easily digested, and spat out ones would simply biodegrade in about six weeks.
“This marathon (trial) is a milestone," said Gonzalez after the event, adding that for the latest membrane production they had succeeded in removing “ … all the green stuff and the smelly stuff," to make the rehydration sachets tasteless.
As well as practical manufacture and usage, the other issue that the Notpla team is addressing is strength. Although the film ticks all the right boxes for biodegradability and capability, it isn’t that strong, so at the moment is only used for smaller sachets.
The solution to this could be in multi-layer packaging, says Gonzalez. “We are trying to address the strength issue by using a double container," he says. "The idea is that we can pack several individual edible Oohos into a single, bigger container with a tougher (outer) membrane." The company is also looking at frozen yoghurt balls as a possible product that would suit the Ooho packaging.
Initial results look very encouraging. Last year the London Marathon saw a terrifying 910,000 plastic bottle handed out to runners – who either threw them on the ground as they ran, or put them into bins after the race. Either way, that was a lot of plastic waste to get rid of. And given that Notpla’s source material - brown seaweed - is one of nature’s most renewable resources which grows up to 1m a day and doesn’t require fresh water or fertiliser to grow, as well as removing acid build up in the ocean, just that amount a massive step away from using plastic as a liquid-containing material.
“And unlike plastic, Notpla is home compostable and also doesn’t contaminate PET recycling, plus it enables event organisers to produce and sell fresh Oohos containing drinks or sauces as desired,” says the company.
The next projects on the drawing board for the company are heat-sealable films for powders and dry food, and sachets for non-food products like screws, nails or hardware. “We’ve also developed a coating made from Notpla for the food takeaway industry that’s natural, biodegradable and even re-pulpable,” they say. This compares with the usual takeaway solution of using lined cardboard, coated with plastic made from oil or corn, both of which are non sustainable.
“We are a combination of designers and chemists, engineers and entrepreneurs. We’re hard to define because what we’re doing hasn’t been done before,” says the team. “We create advanced packaging solutions that disappear, naturally.”