Swapping Plastic with Seaweed: A Wknd Interview with Neha Jain of Zerocircle

It all started when Neha Jain decided to make her home plastic-free, five years ago.

'The right formula has to be the perfect trifecta of pricing, biomass availability and our technology.  When all these pieces fell into place, we knew we had a solution that was not only scientific but scalable for the world,' says Jain.  (HT Photo: Satish Bate) premium
‘The right formula has to be the perfect trifecta of pricing, biomass availability and our technology. When all these pieces fell into place, we knew we had a solution that was not only scientific but scalable for the world,’ says Jain. (HT Photo: Satish Bate)

As he took the trash to the recycler, he realized he hadn’t made a dent. Not only in his lifestyle, but also in the larger scenario of the problem.

“I’ve always wanted to work in the sustainability field,” says the serial entrepreneur and former solutions consultant at Google. “But, like many, I didn’t have a clear path or information.”

At this time, in 2018, it has been six years since Jain launched his first start-up, Fly by Night. It was India’s first “midnight delivery service”, and was operational in Mumbai until 2015. “This was a fast-commerce company when fast delivery was unheard of and it was an exciting challenge,” she says.

After Fly by Night, she served as a software solutions consultant, then set aside to pursue this new dream: Can she work with scientists, think-tanks and researchers to combat plastic packaging at scale?

A key ally soon began to help give direction to the dream. CRK Reddy, a scientist focused on marine microalgae or seaweed, and former head of the non-profit organization Indian Center for Climate and Societal Impacts Research, has spent decades advocating for better communication about the climate crisis, the changes needed and the actions of individuals. Companies and countries can take.

“Our company is the result of extensive research and many trips to the coastal areas of Maharashtra”, says 37-year-old Jain. Zerocircle was founded in 2020 with the goal of turning seaweed into biodegradable plastic-alternative packaging.

Last month, the company won the Tom Ford Plastics Innovation Award for developing a biodegradable packaging material from seaweed. The prize — named for the American fashion designer and created by him in collaboration with the Lonely Whale Foundation — recognizes efforts to “source and scale ocean-safe and biodegradable alternatives” to traditional thin-film plastics made from fossil fuels. Zerocircle is awarded $1.2 million. $250,000 of the total purse has been won.

Its packaging solutions break down in four to eight weeks, depending on thickness, and in 30 seconds in boiling water, leaving no residue. Besides being biodegradable, they are transparent, heat-sealable and food-safe.

Seaweed, a term that covers a range of seaweed species, is an important part of marine ecosystems. It provides food for many species, from small crabs and crayfish to giant humpback whales. Seaweed forests also serve as shelters and nurseries for marine life.

Packed with flavor as well as vitamins, fiber and other nutrients, it has been on the menu for people for decades in modern times. In recent years, inventors around the world have also been working to develop high-tensile-strength materials as alternatives to plastics. Different companies have met with success in different ways. Some have created bubble wrap and food containers that are part seaweed, part fossil fuel. Others among this year’s award winners have also created pouches that can be used for a variety of purposes.

Zerocircle’s packaging is made from three major groups of seaweed: Rhodophyta (red), Phyophyta (brown) and Chlorophyta (green). The company buys its seaweed from farms in Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. “We work closely with local communities to ensure that agricultural practices are sustainable and do not interfere with natural ecosystems,” says Jain.

Setting up all this in a pandemic posed unique challenges, recalls Jain. “For a science-driven product, we didn’t have a lab to work with. That was one of the biggest challenges, finding a lab that would allow us to work during a pandemic,” she says.

The first prototype of the clear, flexible film was made in about six months. But it wasn’t necessarily nearly as durable. “It took many iterations to perfect.” There was no turning point. “We always knew the material would work and it did. The right formula wasn’t just about chemical composition and molecular structure. It had to be the right trifecta of pricing, biomass availability and our technology. When all these pieces fell into place, we had only a scientific solution. But there was a scalable solution for the world.”

As more countries move to ban single-use and other plastics, Zerocircle hopes to step in and fill what will be a growing place for biopolymers in the sustainable manufacturing landscape.

“The materials industry is constantly evolving, with new materials being introduced, but also widespread greenwashing. Brands and consumers are bombarded with terms like ‘compostable’, ‘biodegradable’ and ‘sustainable’ without a clear understanding of their meaning and implications for end-of-life products. ,” says Jain. Communicating effectively, especially in companies, is part of Zerocircle’s mission, she says.

Significant obstacles remain. Plastic is a habit. It is popular and easily accessible. Best of all, it’s cheap.

Pricing is the biggest concern now, says Jain. “Purchasing departments are trained to look at immediate costs, but when you add the real monetary cost that society bears at large, the lifetime cost of plastic is 10 times higher. New materials, by comparison, are 1.5 or 2 times more for immediate, but society at disposal. It costs nothing.”

It will help to implement legal amendments. “We need legislation to tax plastics and encourage new materials. At this time, we do not have a recognized certification for home compostable materials. These changes and adoption will help companies make better decisions. ”

Although Zerocircle is currently in the pre-production stage (a commercial launch is under consideration), the mission is ready: to utilize a large resource in a bio-sustainable way. “The vast Indian coastline,” says Jain, “has more to offer than just breathtaking scenery.”

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