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It’s estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. But as worrying as this is, plastic is also an essential part of our modern lives, and simply telling people to recycle or use less of it hasn’t been a very successful strategy. Only nine percent of plastics are recycled worldwide, even as our use of plastic has quadrupled in the past 30 years.
Of course, pollution isn’t the only issue surrounding the manufacture of plastics. There’s also the fact that they’re made from fossil fuels, which are a dwindling resource. Finding an alternative has been the focus of some innovative organizations seeking to create polymers from renewable fuel sources, including corn and bioplastics.
Another new and exciting development in non-fossil plastic alternatives has been developed by Western Australia-based startup Uluu. The company is achieving both environmental and social benefits with its seaweed-based product.
As with all startups, it’s not only innovation that’s important, it’s also having the right leadership. Without it, the success of any organization seeking to forge a new path will be limited.
Oceanographer and Uluu Co-Founder Julia Reisser explains that looking at problems like fossil fuel-based plastic and the resulting pollution requires a certain attitude, which is focused more on the age of the company than those in leadership.
“We were born to help the planet,” she enthuses. “I don’t know if it’s necessarily young leadership; it can be older people creating new startups, but young companies are being founded in this new era where we’re reporting on impact at the board level and in other areas.”
Co-Founder Michael Kingsbury agrees. “There’s pros and cons to experience. We’re not fermentation or material scientists by training, but this new industry provides opportunities to look at this issue from a different perspective,” he says.
Introducing any new product to the market can be difficult for a small company, especially where it’s hoping to fill a gap that has been notoriously difficult to do. But Reisser believes startups have an advantage over legacy companies in this area.
“We have the ability to be agile in a way that bigger organizations aren’t,” she notes. “I’ve worked in bigger organizations and universities, but working in a startup appeals because you can have a more direct impact.
“I wanted to see if we could take acceleration of science into tangible outcomes that really change systems and help to have a healthier planet.”
By extracting and fermenting the sugars from seaweed, Uluu’s scientists are able to extract polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) to create bioplastic pellets. PHAs are biodegradable, and the company aims to first target packaging and textiles as industries where its products can replace traditional, fossil fuel-derived plastic.
But like other startups focused on sustainability, the product is only part of the story. In sourcing the seaweed from seaweed farmers, Uluu discovered the potential for another positive impact.
“Sixty-five percent of seaweed farmers in South-East Asia are female,” Reisser explains. “Something that we get a lot of happiness from is that as we established our business, we see there’s a lot of potential for female empowerment, which is the quickest way to empower a community.”
The company also hopes to work with the Australian government to facilitate knowledge transfer between the seaweed farmers in Indonesia, where Uluu currently sources its feedstock, and Indigenous women in remote communities in Australia. This could be a business opportunity that would allow the women to stay on country and also empower their communities.
Like many younger leaders, Reisser and Kingsbury draw inspiration from mentors and respected figures in their professional lives.
“You always look up to people who support you and are generous with their time and lead by example,” Kingsbury acknowledges. “We feel it’s up to us to do the same when younger people are coming through too.”
Both are comfortable with using social media and are ambitious about its role in communicating widely with a global audience. The company’s first round of funding was essentially crowdsourced via Facebook.
“As we scale, we want to use it as a better education tool,” Reisser says. “We’d like to use it to really release valuable content, not just noise. The challenge and one of the pleasures of the job is to communicate our mission with a wide range of audiences.
“It’s an important time to be tackling plastic pollution, it is clear that fossil plastics are a problem that’s ingrained in the fossil fuel economy and we need to decouple from that.”
Kingsbury agrees, and adds that Uluu is well suited to take on this challenge.
“There’s a huge system around us needing to change, but that’s also an opportunity for us to lead the way in that area.”