This year, plastic is on the rebound – and it’s come back to bite.
One of the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic has been a sudden run on plastic-based products, undoing years of progress towards plastic-free living. Environmental activism and commitments against the use of plastics have, for the time being, been put to rest in favour of what are obvious overriding safety concerns – but this is also worrying news. Many of the now-ubiquitous plastic products, such as facemasks and gloves, are single-use, with waste already threatening marine and other wildlife.
Enter Polish start-up MakeGrowLab, which wants to bring back the alternative materials discussion. Their biomaterial packaging alternative, Scoby Packaging, is made from farm waste biomass, such unwanted roots, fruits and vegetables. In late May, and despite the coronavirus crisis, the company launched the packaging on the market for the first time, as wrapping for natural soaps.
“We have been working towards this day for a long time,” says Josh Brito, one-half of MakeGrowLab, which he runs with Roza Janusz. “It is an exciting time for us all and we are looking forward to the future.”
The idea for Scoby Packaging was first thought up by Janusz as a university project whilst she was at an academy of design, the School of Form in Poznań, Poland. But, in 2018, she joined forces with Brito to refine the material. They launched MakeGrowLab, based in the southeastern Polish town of Puławy, to prioritise research and commercial development of their plastic alternative – with a focus on local production.
“Our resources are collected from local food producers here in the east of Poland,” explains Brito. “There are plenty of farms in our area so we don't have to look far.”
The team use all parts of the food waste – from the water to scraps – and extract cellulose, which is then reconstructed through a microbiological process to form cellulose sheets.
“We take the unwanted mass of food and turn it into useful materials through a fully circular process,” Brito says.
“Take an unwanted apple, for example. Our team breaks down the apple and rebuilds its useful skin for a variety of purposes.”
The film-like substance created as a result is a bio-cellulose packaging membrane, which can be customised, has a six-month shelf life, and can slow food decay. To top it off, due to the natural ingredients, the material is also edible, with a similar taste to natural fermented drink kombucha – or else taking on the flavour of the food it is used to wrap. Kombucha itself is made from sweetened tea and what is known as a ‘scoby’ culture, standing for 'symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts’, and from where Scoby Packaging takes its name.
“And, at the end of their use, these materials can also be used as a fertilizer to enrich our soils, which can be used to grow more food,” adds Brito.
Bartłomiej Kozek, a sustainable development specialist at UNEP/GRID-Warsaw Centre, a UN institute for research into sustainable, thinks Scoby Packaging has the potential to become a viable alternative to plastics.
“It ticks a lot of boxes regarding sustainability,” he says. “I’m quite optimistic about it.”
With 40 per cent of plastic produced used in packaging, Kozek believes innovation like Scoby Packaging could help change the way consumers think about plastics altogether.
“Sustainable packaging experiments are becoming an important part of the market,” he explains. “Innovation can be used to stimulate local and regional economies. Suddenly you don’t need to have lots and lots of factories – and more localised production may become more future-proof.
But, he adds, the discussion about plastic use needs to be “in holistic terms”. “It’s really important to think about how many resources we use. If we are talking about either plastics or alternatives to plastics, it is important to talk about the whole process. We need to think about its place in production and consumption in our daily lives,” he explains.
For Brito and Janusz, it’s about trying to create a bio-revolution of their own around waste and materials. For their first foray into the market, they chose to collaborate with local company Manaika Natural Cosmetics, based only a five-minute walk away from the MakeGrowLab team, to package their range of natural soaps.
And although the pandemic did slow this collaboration, the small-scale work at MakeGrowLab meant the team were able to overcome its economic effects and continue promoting sustainable alternatives.
“Our materials can be used in a variety of different sectors, such as in the food, medical, fashion and industrial industry – in order to bring these uses to the world we need to focus on long term research and efficiency,” explains Brito.
Kozek agrees that the pandemic is ripe for providing such new opportunities to tackle plastic waste.
“Nobody thinks that we will have zero-waste in medicine anytime soon,” he says, “But people are still ready to talk about environmental issues.”
This, he adds, is already happening in Poland – a country infamous for its pollution issues. “I think that environmental issues, and the issues regarding plastics, will be ongoing,” he says.”
“This isn’t a perfect time for a transformation from single-use plastics – on the other hand, this pandemic shows ecological issues like zoonotic diseases can turn our world upside down.”
“The amount of plastic being used to protect lives right now is incredible, so we need to work together on this one,” adds Brito.
“Now is a great time to appreciate the benefits of such materials, but at the same time be conscious of our use, and waste management.