According to the UN Environment Program, the equivalent of a garbage truck of plastic is dumped into our ocean every minute. Of the 9 billion tons of plastic produced between 1950 and 2017, roughly 70% ended up as plastic waste.
Of these waste products, fossil-fuel based plastic foams are some of the most intractable – creating risks that cut across human health, climate change adaptation capabilities, food production, and economic well-being.
Inspired by the resiliencies found in the natural world, Cruz Foam is a cost-competitive, bio-derived compostable foam that outperforms existing plastic foams, unlocking a cheap, tough, and flexible alternative that holds the potential to meet consumer demand at scale.
Humans are producing plastic at a catastrophic rate. Since the year 2000, annual global plastic production has more than doubled to 460 million tons. Plastics, which are almost universally fossil-fuel derived, account for 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 6% of global oil production, a number projected to reach 20% by 2050. Experts estimate that by then, the total tonnage of plastic humanity has produced will exceed 34 billion.
Designed to be cheap, practical, and virtually indestructible, the overwhelming majority of plastic produced today is here to stay. Less than 10% of plastic is recycled successfully, and recycled plastic only accounts for 6% of total plastic production. A 2017 Science study estimated that, in 2015, 12% of plastic was incinerated and 79% ended up in landfills and the natural environment. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) puts the current numbers at 19% for incineration, 50% in landfills, and 22% in “uncontrolled dumpsites, burned in open pits, or in terrestrial or aquatic environments.” The severity of aquatic plastic pollution is most clearly exemplified by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. A tract of water more than three times the size of France, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic and weighs 80,000 tons – six times the weight of the local fish.
Most plastics don’t biodegrade, but they do break down, gradually turning into microplastics– a term that refers to plastic particles less than 5mm in length. Microplastics have been detected everywhere, from the ice in Antarctica to the deepest parts of the oceans. They have been found in human placenta, lungs, and bloodstreams.
In 2019, the World Wildlife Foundation commissioned a study that concluded that people individually ingest around five grams of plastic per week. The long-term health effects of microplastics consumption are still largely unknown, though they will likely become clearer in the coming years. In an ominous sign, a small study conducted at the University Medical Centre Utrecht established a connection between contact with microplastics and immune cell death.
The environmental repercussions of plastics production are manifest. Plastics contaminate our water and soil, and destroy food chains and ecosystems. The WWF-Australia estimates that plastic pollution kills 100,000 sea mammals every year, either through ingestion or entanglement. Another study conducted in New Zealand found that 75% of the fish caught over a two year period contained microplastics. These numbers are only projected to increase – GDP is highly correlated to plastics production, meaning that as GDP grows, so too will the demand for plastics, particularly as developing economies industrialize.
Packaging plastics and fossil fuel-based foams are particularly problematic. They are usually lightweight, bulky, porous, and difficult to clean, which makes them challenging to recycle. Packaging comprises 40% of annual single-use plastics production, which in turn accounts for 50% of overall plastic production. By total mass, non-microplastics make up 92% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and they will continue to do so for years, as they can take centuries to break down.
Fossil-fuel based foams are also dangerous. Inputs can include benzene, styrene, and ethylene – toxic byproducts of oil and gas refinement. Styrofoam is particularly hazardous; when exposed to sunlight, it breaks down into tiny toxic fragments of styrene which contaminate the surrounding environment. Benzene, which is used in Styrofoam’s creation, is classified as a carcinogen by the Department of Health and Human Services, and exposure to benzene in the air has been linked to leukemia.
Unfortunately, products like Styrofoam are both incredibly useful and increasingly necessary. They have low thermal and audio conductivity, making them ideal for insulating and sound-proofing our houses and buildings. They are lightweight, strong, and highly malleable, so they are perfect for protection and shock absorption in shipping and transport – particularly of fragile, scratchable items like electronics. They can be sourced cheaply and produced in large quantities, so they can scale with demand.
In an increasingly electronic and globalized world, we need a sustainable packaging alternative to fossil-fuel based foams that can meet accelerating demand. Such an alternative needs to be bio-derived and compostable. It also needs to perform as well as existing foams (to be as tough and as flexible). It needs to be cheap, so that it can cost-compete with existing single-use plastics. And it needs to be made from materials abundant enough, and use production processes familiar enough, that it can scale to meet consumer needs.
Cruz Foam is working on an alternative.
The origin of Cruz Foam is as organic as its product. When John Felts, the founder and CEO of Cruz Foam, was a chemical engineering undergraduate student at UC Santa Barbara, his mother suffered a stroke and he meditatively began surfing every day. This inspired a deep and enduring love of the ocean – and a visceral awareness of what was plaguing it. He made it his mission to create an ocean-specific solution to the plastics epidemic.
Galvanized by this pursuit, Felts earned a master’s degree in materials engineering at the University of Washington. While there, he met Dr. Marco Rolandi, an Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and fellow avid surfer. Rolandi had previously founded KiToTech Medical, a medical supplies company that used chitin as its main input. Chitin is the most abundant polymer in the oceans – around 1012–1014 tons are produced by living oceanic organisms annually – and second most abundant in nature (to cellulose, which lacks chitin’s structural integrity). It is primarily found in cell walls, insect skeletons, and crustacean shells. Six to eight million tons of crustacean shells go to waste every year, with the cost of disposal sometimes actually exceeding the market value of the shells. Chitin is both rigid and flexible, and since it is made up entirely of organic materials, it is also entirely biodegradable.
Intrigued by the possibilities chitin offered, Felts continued his work at the University of California, Santa Cruz working on a chitin-based plastic foam alternative. He founded Cruz Foam in 2017.
Cruz Foam’s chitin-based materials combine a variety of naturally-occurring ingredients that would otherwise go to waste. They are strong enough to package and protect heavy, fragile products like televisions, while maintaining structural flexibility. Cruz Foam is free from fossil fuel inputs, non-toxic, and “backyard-compostable” — that is to say, you can throw it in your backyard compost heap, and it will biodegrade into high-quality, nutrient-rich organic waste.
Critically, Cruz Foam was designed to meet global demand in both price and quantity. The materials Cruz Foam uses are cheap and plentiful, and since Cruz Foam products can be produced on existing plastic manufacturing equipment scale, they will be price-equivalent to petroleum-based foams. The result is a product with the potential to take on the single-use, petroleum-based plastic packaging industry.
Helena is excited for the many potential applications of the Cruz Foam circular materials. In October, Helena led Cruz Foam’s $18M Series A funding round, with Matt Saunders, Principal of Helena Special Investments, joining the Cruz Foam board. Helena was joined by Small Planet, Regeneration VC, At One Ventures, and SoundWaves. The goal of the round is “to accelerate and scale the commercialization” of Cruz Foam, according to Felts, and help catalyze the transition of global supply chains away from single-use materials.
In February of 2023, Cruz Foam formally introduced its product to the market with a diversity of applications including foam and paper wrap that can replace bubble wrap or styrofoam, foam mailers and coolers, and large foam products to protect furniture and electronics.
In tandem, the company announced its partnership with Atlantic Packaging to deploy the solution across a wide range of grocers and retailers.
The partnership reflects an “ever-increasing demand from the world’s biggest brands for sustainable protective packaging that offers high technical performance and is earth-friendly, according to Felts. ” The company notes that it can potentially avoid the release of 53,000 tons of CO2 over the next three years based on current projections.
The joint effort is part of Atlantic Packaging’s A New Earth Project initiative which brings together the voices of ocean and water advocacy with brands and initiatives that can make positive impact within the supply chain.
While in the near-term, Cruz Foam will bring its focus to the ecommerce sector, with an emphasis on temperature-sensitive and fragile shipping needs, the core components of the company’s compostable material offer a potential solution for enormous market demand that market demand that encompasses everything from coffee cups to takeout food containers.
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