Zerocircle – replacing plastic with seaweed

March 5, 2024

When reading up last year about how six commodities have shaped human civilisation, I remember feeling guilty about the fact that most of us don’t have a clue about how things are made. I vaguely knew that semiconductors are made of silicon which in turn is derived from sand, but I had never read up on how materials are actually derived from the raw commodities. I felt regret not having been able to study science – of any kind – because it’s just impossible to understand if one doesn’t have the foundational knowledge.

Neha Jain shattered that illusion.

Neha is the founder and CEO of Zerocircle, a startup that makes ‘bioplastics’.

Let me summarise the conversation for those who may not get to listen or watch the podcast.

Neha was trained as a journalist. Sometime in her 30s, she developed some gut issues and got concerned about microplastics entering her body. I am sure all of us lament microplastics

But what she did about it gives me hope.

She read up on what materials science had come up with as alternatives to plastic. She found hundreds of research papers which professed to have come up with swatches. Indeed there were even companies that had made food packaging out of seaweed, but these hadn’t scaled enough. She mentioned London-based Notpla as one example which had scaled somewhat having started as a crowd-funded idea.

Neha sent a cold email to a professor, who also kindly agreed to meet her the following day. Together, they visited some coastal areas to see how seaweed farming was being done since seaweed was already a common ingredient in a range of other uses such as food additives etc.

They wanted to see if seaweed was a scalable option for India. Neha concluded it was.

She went on to bring together a team of scientists who could come up with ways to make plastic-type pellets that could be used in existing packaging supply chains – during the pandemic! She won a government grant and even convinced a large multinational food company to try her team’s inventions.

So Neha incubated a materials company without being a scientist herself. During the pandemic. And as a sole female founder. C’mon, you have to agree this is pretty impressive.

Rainmatter thought so. And agreed to fund her company.

In the interview, Neha explained the challenges. The material had to have certain qualities – liquid, fat & oxidation barriers, tensile strength to be able to be stretched, meltability to be able to be sealed. These may seem trivial; they are anything but. And then the output had to be in a format that can go into existing packaging processes.

After two years of R&D, Zerocircle has come up with three products –

  • Film – that can be used in packaging a wide range of products including food; think of a chocolate bar that has an aluminium wrapper
  • Coating – that can be applied to any substrate like cardboard to build a liquid, fat and oxygen barrier; think the paper cups that have a plastic sheet under the paper that leach toxic chemicals into your coffee
  • Paper – made out of seaweed fiber that has no chemical adhesives

Of course, there are other non-scientific challenges too –

  • Convincing both the packaging industry and their customers that the new material will take another couple of years to break even with paper, and maybe five years to break even with plastic (check)
  • Educating the consumers to put the packaging into the compost bin rather than a non-recyclable bin
  • Funding the R&D, production and marketing

None of these appear to faze Neha and her team. Having come up with the products in a government-funded materials incubator in Pune, Zerocircle was getting ready to move to its own production facility when we recorded the interview in late 2023.

As we publish the interview in February 2024, Zerocircle is raising a pre-series-A round with the aim of product commercialisation and launch.

We wish Zerocircle success in scaling the product and company.

And we hope her story inspires all of us to try seeking more solutions in the climate space.

Let’s keep having the climate conversations.

Asking questions on financial literacy, climate and Investing in India

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