Brent Balinski speaks to Kimberly Bolton, the CEO of Carapac, about their plans to turn an abundant waste source — crustacean shells from seafood processors — into biodegradable films and containers.
Last week five Australian companies were announced among 45 shortlisted for Rabobank’s international Foodbytes! startup program.
One of the Australian teams, Carapac (formerly Biochite), is developing substitutes for petrochemical-based plastics. These use processed chitosan, sourced from the shells of prawns, shells and crabs, which are thrown out in the millions of tonnes.
According to the company, their packaging material can break down within 90 days, with the added benefit of releasing nitrogen into the soil at the same time.
Carapac came together through University of Sydney’s Inventing the Future program for post-graduates across different research disciplines. Founders Michelle Demers, Jared Wood and Kimberly Bolton have plant pathology, chemistry and business backgrounds.
@AuManufacturing: Tell us about the program your team met through
Kimberly Bolton: You get to select a problem that you want to work together to solve as a group. And it takes students from science, engineering, design and business. We started delving into the plastic waste problem and discovered that we could potentially make plastic alternatives out of crustacean shell waste, which has a quicker breakdown in comparison to other biodegradable and compostable materials that are out on the market.
And so after that course we decided to start the company as a side project to see if we could see if it had any legs. And we’ve continued to run the company and develop the technology. Unfortunately, the two co-founders had to commit to finishing up their PhDs and I’ve committed to carrying on running that business. They are still involved but have a limited involvement.
@AuManufacturing: I guess you looked through a few different types of biodegradable biocompostable plastics before you settled on chitin.
Kimberly Bolton: We did a big deep dive into the plastic packaging market and looked at the other alternatives to see if there was anything out there that is in our view sustainable and practically sustainable as well. So we analysed a whole range of other biodegradables which are mostly made of cornstarch. But you can actually get petrochemical biodegradable materials as well, which is quite scary. Then we also get degradable materials, which is just pure petrochemical-based plastic that breaks down into microplastics really quickly. And that is my absolute pet peeve.
We also did a big analysis of a lot of home compostable and industrial compostable plants and materials. And we visited a range of industrial composters to see what their experiences were with the industrial compostable materials. We found that most of the materials didn’t actually break down, even if they were certified. And there was still the issues that industrial composting plants do not accept industrial composting materials, and that for home compostable materials only maybe four per cent of the population has home compost bins or access to composting facilities. So that’s not necessarily solving any of the waste issues.
So we wanted to come up with a solution from that point on, where there’s a quick, accessible breakdown. So, we did a bit of a deep dive into what different bio sources could make a film, but also have a quick breakdown. And then we came across crustacean shells or chitin and chitosan. And then from that point, we’d actually developed our own range of materials in-house.
@AuManufacturing: Are there any other companies around the world that are using crustacean-derived materials? ,
Kimberly Bolton: There’s one company also in the research and development phase, in Scotland, who are doing it. And then three other research institutes. But there’s no commercially available chitosan-based plastic.
@AuManufacturing: Where are you sourcing your shell material from at the moment?
Kimberly Bolton: We’re currently trying to source them from food processing plants, because they already de-shell the crustaceans and are an easy collection point. Those sort of plants across Asia Pacific create about 8.1 million tonnes of that crustacean shell waste every year. So a huge source there. There are a number of companies around the world who are actually taking that waste and also already processing it into chitin or chitosan. And we’re working with a sustainable provider from Indonesia. Ideally we’d love to source from Australia. But for now, that’s the best option for us.
@AuManufacturing: Are you currently making small volumes of plastic to demo to potential partners or are you in production?
Kimberly Bolton: We are still really at the prototyping phase. It has taken quite a long time to actually do the development of the films. We are at the phase of putting together a test rig, as well as sharing prototypes and whatnot and trying to scale up the production so that we can actually get it to a customers’ hands at a reasonable level of supply.
@AuManufacturing: Your website says you can make films and containers and other products. Are you making something like a polyethylene replacement?
Kimberly Bolton: Polyethylene and polypropylene. We’ve been able to develop a semi-rigid material as well, but are focussing on flexible materials at the moment. We can make a range of different flexible materials like bags or pouches. And each of those have different requirements. We’ve also developed a clingfilm. And an adhesive.
The whole theory behind our breakdown is that you don’t even need a home composter to actually put it in. You can put it in your garden and it will take three to six weeks to fully biodegrade or decompose.
And as it’s doing that it becomes a slow-release nitrogen fertiliser. It’s fantastic for plants and it’s a much more accessible breakdown.
@AuManufacturing: Has R&D been expensive? Have you needed much backing so far?
Kimberly Bolton: We’ve been bootstrapping and we’ll be looking to sourcing funding relatively soon.
@AuManufacturing: Are you able to say a little bit, just from a top level perspective about the process to turn shells into your material? What goes on?
Kimberly Bolton: I can’t really disclose a lot about the actual processing of the material at this stage.
@AuManufacturing: Are you looking to make and sell plastic products to customers or to have them produced under contract?
Kimberly Bolton: I’ve been looking at partnering up with a potential manufacturer here in Australia to help us scale it, and then essentially contract out to them. It depends on which final product is demanded by the actual customer. Some of them are demanding rolls of the material in a film to process through their machinery, but then we’ll also be doing a range of assembled packaging. Ideally, long term, it would be more selling the film in the rolls to customers, but also being involved in the final design of the packaging so that we can clearly articulate how consumers can dispose of that.
@AuManufacturing: Is the giant issue of plastic waste an exciting problem to be addressing?
Kimberly Bolton: It is an incredible time to be solving this problem. I think we are getting to a tipping point.
I know I’m a little bit biased, but I really believe our solution can solve a lot of the issues and be very practical and easy swap for current plastic packaging that could make a big difference. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be doing this.
@AuManufacturing: Any final words on your next moves for the company?
Kimberly Bolton: Our next steps will be test rig-scale production and then getting some funds to actually scale it into a pilot facility and working then with a partner manufacturer to make our film and packaging at scale and getting it into customers’ hands and doing a big launch with consumers. Obviously Covid has delayed that whole process, but we’re really excited to get on that journey. There’s a lot of work involved and we are entering into this competition and a range of other competitions to try and get a name out there to get support for this scaling up journey.
(This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)
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