When I first came across Marea, an Icelandic startup developing a biodegradable packaging film from seaweed, I couldn’t get over the incredibly diverse background of its founder—Julie Encausse.
Julie has lived, worked and studied in four countries, pivoting from marketing, brand management and film production to sustainability. The idea to start Marea came about when Julie and two friends, Edda and Jódís, were working on a project for their university course.
“Marea was born over a cup of hot tea in one of the coffee shops at Reykjavík University back in June 2019,” says Julie. The group had just wrapped a practical entrepreneurial course taught by Iceland’s seasoned investor and entrepreneur Bala Kamallakharan. For the course, students had to design and pitch a startup idea. What Bala said at the course struck a chord with Julie: “The usual ideas are usually bad ideas to start a startup. You really need to feel that you are solving a real global problem.” That is exactly what Julie and her team ended up doing after the course.
Promising future of seaweed biopolymers
Marea has not entered production yet, but its team of manifold experts in business, innovation, marketing, engineering, biochemistry and biotechnology is working night and day towards 100% biodegradable packaging.
“We feel privileged to be working on developing seaweed biopolymers at this point in time,” Julie told the Grapevine. “Seaweed cultivation is on the fast track to becoming the rule and not the exception, and we are just starting to unlock its potential and applications from a food source to clothing and biomedical usages.”
“I think never before have we had such engaged consumers, who demand better cost-effective solutions,” she continues. “Consumer behavior is changing in that we are skipping the unnecessary polybags and packaging (nudged by new legislations that continue to evolve) and moving towards smart packaging. I think that soon enough a QR code will be a necessity in packaging so that we know how, when and where to dispose it.”
The technology behind it all
Julie is assured that there’s no one size fits all solution when it comes to the challenges of packaging. “Our team is focusing on developing thin films that are biodegradable, food-grade and ocean-safe. We are at the solution-design end of things: developing a seaweed-based biopolymer, which basically translates into a material from which, through traditional manufacturing equipment with a twist, you can create biodegradable packaging. We don’t aim at having a large product range but we do aim at being the best at sustainable thin film packaging.”
Julie is confident the market is screaming for an alternative. “Businesses are in dire need of other packaging materials that do not lead to their products becoming more expensive for their clients. Believe me, we get it, and we are working on it with tharaplast [the thin film packaging]. We are leveraging all the great things about seaweed, such as the fact that it is regenerative and captures CO2 and turning that into a biodegradable packaging that is ocean-safe and won’t be stuck in landfills.”
Marea has already run a few experiments to measure how long it takes for tharaplast to biodegrade: samples of tharaplast were added to a waste management company Terra’s composting containers at their facilities in Hafnarfjörður and after fifteen days there were little to no traces left. The team is about to start the formal research and lab work on analyzing and understanding how Tharaplast can be put into better use when disposed: “Seaweed-derived biopolymers have the potential to act as biofertilizers since its components can enhance microbial activity and improve plant yield.”
Local action for replicable global impact
Marea wants to bring solutions to businesses in the food sector where most often unnecessary packaging options are found. “The end-game is a global and scalable solution that we are designing. I cannot think of a better place than Iceland to kick-start this. Where else will you find the undaunting spirit, resilience and fearless determination that Icelanders have to move forward through challenges and nasty winters paired with the supportive startup ecosystem?”
Marea plans to create a pilot-scale station in Iceland by 2025, with the aim that it completely meets the needs of the Icelandic market in biodegradable thin films used for packaging. After use, the products can be converted to biofertilizers and feed for livestock, and the company plans to have their technical solution patented and in use across at least five other countries. Just a few days ago it was announced that Marea became the finalist of TOM FORD Innovation Prize, the only global competition for thin film plastic alternatives.
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