Plastics are everywhere. Often described as the material of the 21st century, plastics are found in our polyester clothes, our outdoor furniture and our supermarket food containers.
An estimated 360 million tons of plastic were produced globally in 2018, and worldwide consumption continues to grow rapidly. The vast majority of it, more than 90%, ends up in the dump or the natural environment, taking more than 400 years to decompose in our oceans and up to a staggering 1,000 years in landfills.
Combining decades of experience in the packaging and hi-tech industries, Israeli entrepreneurs Joseph Siani and Lior Itai decided to join forces and approach the intimidating challenge of producing an alternative to polluting plastics. They recognized that a silver-bullet solution to the global challenge was simply unfeasible.
Together, they founded W-Cycle, a start-up that develops compostable packaging solutions to tackle the masses of C-PET plastic used in the huge ready-meal packaging industry. Rather than producing single-use trays from plastic and aluminum, W-Cycle’s patented “SupraPulp” packaging product is based on sugarcane pulp, known as bagasse.
“Our strategy was to take something widely available out there, without a need to invest a lot in [material] generation. So we focused on a cellulose-based solution and how we can reuse some industry byproducts,” said Itai, who serves as CEO of the Kibbutz Gan Shmuel-based company. “We focused on the sugar industry, which takes sugarcane, processes it and takes the sugar out. There is tons of waste, just pulp, and that is a great raw material.”
Following four years of research and development efforts, W-Cycle’s material now can be frozen to minus-40°C and be reheated in the oven to 250°C. Of critical importance for the food industry, the material is entirely omniphobic (liquid-repelling). After use, the package can either be thrown away into a brown recycling bin as organic waste or, alternatively, in the paper recycling bin.
“SupraPulp is made of 100% natural materials and does not emit any toxins or heavy metals,” Itai said. “It is equal to a banana leaf in the sense that it is completely natural and 100% compostable.”
The byproduct-based solution has advantages over existing “green” alternatives, he emphasized, as bioplastics produced primarily from cornstarch require production of the raw material. Other cellulose-based products, made from living plants, often include a thin coating of plastic to prevent the pulp from absorbing water.
The company is currently in advanced discussions with ready-meal manufacturers and a series of major airline catering companies from Europe and the Far East. The company has already announced a partnership with Neto, a major Israeli food group.
“We want to create a product that will be as cost-effective and just as good as what people are used to,” Siani said. “If you look at the material content, pulp is much stronger than plastic – and it’s cheaper.”
W-Cycle’s solution seems to have arrived at the right time, with airlines increasingly considering how to reduce plastic waste and their overall environmental impact. Emirates, Ryanair and Portuguese charter airline Hi Fly have all made significant progress in reducing plastic dependency or pledged to become entirely plastic free in the coming years.
Additional target markets include large institutions that need to distribute lots of meals in single-use packaging, including hospitals, jails and schools.
“The main motivation today to find alternatives is that people realize that plastic is bad for the environment. As a result, you can see more and more countries starting to legislate different laws to prohibit plastic use,” Itai said. “This kind of pressure goes back to the industry, and they need to deal with the challenge. When we meet with investors, they are sincerely interested in how to make the world a better place, whether through recyclable or compostable products.”
The start-up has an ambitious road map for the future, with Siani emphasizing that “pulp can replace anything,” including plastic film and bottles. “Pulp is one of the greatest raw materials in all industries. It’s only a matter of how much focus you put on the right things.”
In the coming years, Itai says, W-Cycle will work to tackle “the holy grail of the food industry”: high-barrier films for packaging. These films prevent moisture, oxygen and light from entering and exiting product packaging, enabling extended shelf life.
“A high-barrier paper solution based on our raw material can eventually replace milk cartons, for example, which are very expensive to recycle with six to eight different layers,” Itai said. “In the industry, it is easier to recycle plastic bottles than milk cartons. That will allow us to enter the beverage packaging sector, which is a huge market, as well as snack-food packaging, which currently uses aluminum and plastic.”