Sustainable Plastic from Seaweed – E70

Great to chat with Julia Marsh, Co-Founder & CEO at Sway, a company that is building a plastic-free future with the regenerative power of seaweed! We discussed the carbon sequestration power of seaweed, the negative environmental impacts of single-use plastics, how to alleviate guilt for the shopper, the reality of compostable products and more!

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The unedited podcast transcript is below

James McWalter: Hello today We’re speaking with Julia Marsh:   cofounder and CEO of SWAY. Welcome to podcast Julia!   brilliant I suppose to start could you tell us a little bit about sway.

Julia Marsh:     Hi James nice to be here. Absolutely so sway is tackling 1 of the biggest challenges facing our planet which is the plastic crisis which directly feeds into the climate crisis and how we’re doing this is utilizing this beautiful regenerative material which is seaweed. And creating ah replacements for packaging that are compostable that turn into healthy soil while simultaneously replenishing Ocean ecosystems I’m really excited to dive in with you.

James McWalter: And yeah, absolutely and so what drove that kind of initial decision to yeah, you know, basically use seaweed to develop a plastic substitute.

Julia Marsh:     Well a little background I’m a designer by trade and really looked at the plastic problem as a design challenge and I thought let’s look at every single. Alternative to plastics and specifically thin film plastics because they’re the most difficult to replace they gum up recycling machines. Um, they’re very difficult to find ah reusable solutions for wrappers and chip bags and and poly bags et Cetera. And let’s find the best possible alternatives and then improve them further and what I was seeing is that bioplastics have this immense potential but they are costly. They’re incompatible with existing infrastructure and they’re dependent on resources like corn and sugarcane. Which actually don’t make the planet a better place or are really necessary as a food crop. So let’s push beyond the existing you know limitations of bioplastics and find something better and that’s what led me to seaweed.

James McWalter: And so those kind of existing limitations. Um, you know you say they gum up to works and I guess I haven’t heard too many use cases of those other kind of alternatives who are using those or is that much of a market today. Um, and yeah, what what does that space look like.

Julia Marsh:     Yeah man, the Bioplastics market is enormous. Um, mostly you see bioplastics either used in rigid applications like cups and utensils. Maybe you go to a sweet green or an adjacent company and you’ll see that the. Fork is labeled as being compostable the other most common use case is for things like maybe the grocery store you know produce bag that green bag that’s labeled as being compostable when you order clothing online. Maybe it comes in a poly bag like 1 of those. Thin film bags sometimes and they go straight into the garbage. Yeah maybe the amazon mailer would be a great candidate for where you might want to use bioplastics and then all food packaging really struggles to find compostable replacements.

James McWalter: That that goes straight into the gar garbage every time right now.

Julia Marsh:     And these are the primary interest areas for me more so than the Rigid ones because there’s yeah, there’s very few solutions that can do it right.

James McWalter: And so you kind of came upon seaweed I suppose What are the kind of what was that journey like to find seaweed as a potential solution for the problem.

Julia Marsh:     So I became enraptured with this idea of regeneration. It’s like an age-old practice. It’s nothing new but increasingly brands and activists are focusing on the idea of regeneration that we can restore and replenish life on earth. And integrating that into new systems and products and so I wanted to understand what are the most powerful regenerative source materials on the planet and how can I integrate that into a new material a replacement for plastic packaging and so when you do that.

James McWalter: Sure.

Julia Marsh:     Kind of survey you land on trees you see mushrooms and you see algae and you get micro algae and Macro Algae and I grew up next to the ocean so immediately I’m into seaweed I understand generally how ocean ecosystems work and I knew there was some beautiful poetry of taking something. From the ocean and helping the ocean live and thrive by creating this new material.

James McWalter: Absolutely and I guess when you’re kind of going through that survey and you’re looking at mushrooms you’re looking at you know clium out of trees and and so on like what was that process where you talking to academics where you kind of talking to people within supply chain. Yeah I’d love to hear a little bit about how you research that.

Julia Marsh:     Yeah, 1 of the beautiful things about this industry is everyone’s so friendly and wants to talk about the work that they’re doing because it’s so dependent on collaboration. So whenever I would reach out to either. Yes, academics in the space material libraries like the folks at material connection in New York or just reaching out to the heads of these companies themselves. They’re more than willing to share what their journey was like what the stumbling moments were and what I might need to do in my position as a designer kind of entering this space to be successful.

James McWalter: And yeah I found that as well and I’ve mentioned a few times in the podcast that because these people are so friendly. Um, mainly because we’re just trying to get more people to work on these problems. Um, that people you know there’s a bit of vulnerability involved. But.

Julia Marsh:     Right.

James McWalter: You know having ah guess a little bit of an impetus to kind of reach out cold sometimes to people on Twitter or linkedin um, you know very rarely. You’ll you’ll never may never say never but you’re very rarely you get like a negative reaction. Um, you might just not get ignored but a lot of the time you will have people from pretty big companies say yeah I’d love to have a.

Julia Marsh:     Absolutely and I feel that oftentimes there’s this misconception that you need to be a materials engineer or you need to be a scientist to enter the climate space and that was not the case for me as ah at all outside of maybe.

James McWalter: Twenty minute chat.

Julia Marsh:     Leaving my ego at the door and acknowledging when I Definitely don’t know things and am underqualified to fully understand me to the chemistry but you know there’s a role that everyone has to play in the climate crisis and designers are especially well equipped to make these impossible. More novel futures visible for people and make them Attractive. So actually I was welcomed into these conversations because folks kind of recognize that.

James McWalter: Yeah, and actually if you go to this way website and we’ll link it in the in the show notes. Um I was very much struck by like the design aesthetic of the of the website. No absolutely and and and mainly because like when I think or the average purse I think thinks about like raw materials.

Julia Marsh:     Ah.

James McWalter: Um, and there’s just something to be I suppose ignored or in the background or something not thought of you know we have a disposable culture in many of these particularly around like single use plastics and so in general the people who are creating those don’t really want to like yeah highlight them right? as ah as a use because they just wanted those things that disappear and for people to forget about.

Julia Marsh:     Right.

James McWalter: The negative environmental impacts of those things and so I think you know I’ve seen a couple companies ah you know again? what what I think you’re doing from design point of view is really interesting. Um, but a few who are trying to like put make them make things look nice make things look you know like fascinating make things make people more curious about the actual things that go into.

Julia Marsh:     And.

James McWalter: You know as so as the the things we buy every day.

Julia Marsh:     It’s a wonderful design opportunity because all of a sudden especially during Covid when we’ve all been receiving so many packages to our homes and we’re inviting all these materials into our house for a brand to say to their customer. We care about you. We realize that.

James McWalter: But right? okay.

Julia Marsh:     You’re inviting these materials into your home. We’ve gone the extra mile and chosen a material that actually creates life that actually employs you know in our case in Sway’s case employs coastal communities and. Sequesters carbon and regenerates ocean health and encourages biodiversity. Oh and it’s going to turn into healthy soil at the end of its life what you’ve done all of a sudden is not just created a beautiful sort of tool to alleviate guilt for the for the shopper. But you’ve also enabled them to become a part of the climate movement and materials like plastics these basic building blocks of modern society are I think 1 of the best opportunities we have to do that to to make people feel like oh hey I can be It’s it’s not this inaccessible thing I can be a part of it too and I feel really good about myself.

James McWalter: Yeah, absolutely and I guess so you’ve kind of identified like seaweed. Um, what was that kind of initial you know Mvp or like starting to develop that mvp and what does that process look like.

Julia Marsh:     That was me in my kitchen mixing up seaweed extracts with various sort of plant-based additives and making really really horrible. Smelly films they were. They were ugly um, they curled up they smelled bad.

Julia Marsh:     I very quickly realized that I needed to bring in material engineers. It’s quite obvious in retrospect um and we partnered up with ah the usda as well as folks at the Berkeley school of Green chemistry to create more advanced prototypes.

And as we constantly constantly iterated we were able to get a really beautiful crystal clear film. That’s Odorless. It’s stronger than Ldpe. It’s got amazing heat ceiling Properties. You can adapt the opacity etc so it actually was quite a quick evolution of bringing in the right talent. Unfortunately I can’t go into too much detail because we’re currently filing a provisional patent for the formulation. Um, but yeah, it was. It was really quite ah, a beautiful and and rapid process going from.

Julia Marsh:     This ugly ugly film to something that’s perfectly clear and really high performance.

James McWalter: But I think like I think like that time spent in the kitchen right? I’m sure was invaluable right? because even though you know some very well-qualified people in a lab. You know it’s ah it’s definitely a more sophisticated process. It’s pretty similar process right? We’re trying to heat up things and cool down things and move things from different types of vessels.

Julia Marsh:     Right.

James McWalter: I Think especially you know I’m also coming from like a non-technical point of view and like starting technical companies like getting into the weeds like on my side. Yeah trying to do some coding and your side like in the kitchen you know, stirring some pots I think these are really important because you have to be able to engage with the with the technical team that you’re building and and I think like I Absolutely yeah, think that it duffly stands to companies and and. And to non-technical founders to get their you know Roltra sleeves at at times.

Julia Marsh:     I definitely empathize and admire that the skill set needed to do it Professionally yeah.

James McWalter: Um, so those 2 organizations you mentioned were they like looking for people and wanting to kind of work on these type of things or did you kind of reach out to them.

Julia Marsh:     Yeah, the the wonderful thing about especially the Usda is that they’re set up to help facilitate american investments in new materials or specifically the usda offices in Albany. Looking you know there are adjacent companies to ourselves who have gone through that program including Mango materials which is a ph a company and corramat which creates ah a corn-based foam.

James McWalter: Um, and so you know so seaweed you have this kind of formulation. You’re developing what are its kind of the pros and cons of it versus let’s say conventional. Um, you know film plastic.

Julia Marsh:     Right? So the wonderful thing about seaweed is that it is extremely abundant. It grows on every coastline in the world. 24 7 3 hundred and 65 days a year there’s seven million square kilometers. Seaweed growing today which is roughly equivalent to the size of the Amazon reed forest I think that’s a nice comparison and they’re roughly equivalent in their environmental contribution to the earth as well seaweed sequesters an insane amount of carbon some papers from harvard say seaweed can sequester up to 20 times more carbon.

Julia Marsh:     And per acre than trees. Um, but they also do all these beautiful ecosystem services. They encourage biodiversity by creating habitats for hundreds of species. They mitigate the effects of ocean acidification actually reversing the effects of climate change the more cwed plant. Healthier the ocean or the quality of the ocean will be. They are ecosystem architects as Well. They they help combat um erosion and they’re this amazing source of employment for coastal communities that have maybe been affected by overfishing or by climate Change. Seaweed itself is just the definition of a regenerative resource. It’s doing all this work. Um Fray of charge while also being wildly abundant and growing more quickly than land-based crops so seed grows twenty to 30 times faster than corner sugar cane and you don’t need land.

James McWalter: Right.

Julia Marsh:     You don’t need fresh water. You don’t need pesticides you just plant it and it grows So it’s a fantastic resource compared with the Fossil Fuel industry.

James McWalter: And in terms of let’s say the different types of seaweed. Um, you know some are I’m sure like more you know evolved to work within tropical waters versus Colder waters etc. Um is there particular types of seaweed that work. Best for the kind of process you’re building out.

Julia Marsh:     Ah, right. There are so we primarily work with 3 different species of seaweed and we’re always working to expand the the varieties of seaweed that we can work with. We never want to be too dependent on 1 species. We want wherever possible to encourage the diversification of ah farming practices. Because that creates a healthier ocean. There are beautiful regenerative ocean farms popping up all over the world. We primarily work with farms based in North and south america and yeah, you have. Well over ten thousand species of seaweed to choose from. So we’re just scratching the surface of what might be possible with with seaweed bile palmers.

James McWalter: And so let’s say once it kind of goes through this you know this process that you’re building out. That’s you know the core to your Ip and we have let’s say you know a conventional plastic film and and the sway plastic. Yeah, the seaweed-based film. Um, how do they so differ you know would somebody notice to the eye like what what does that kind of comparison look like so.

Julia Marsh:     Yeah, so visually. Our film looks basically identical to a traditional piece of plastic which can be a beautiful benefit because for instance, If. Ah, cosmetics company wants to sell their extremely gorgeous products. They want the customer to be able to see the the product in the bag and maybe if it was opaque or had some sort of tint that would be a hindrance to purchase. However, we’ve learned actually that customers respond or shoppers respond really? well. The material when it looks like it’s made from seaweed So when it’s tinted green or it has a texture because it gives a little bit of I Guess Social clout or there’s like a social reward for saying I’ve chosen a better material look at me, you know.

James McWalter: No absolutely it that that social pressure piece I think is something that is definitely underwede in a lot of climate startups trying to think through go-to markets. You know we.

Julia Marsh:     Letter.

James McWalter: You know we’re we’re human beings We We express things through what we wear and how we you know what we buy and all those kind of things and because so many things are now just like a pure kind of emar Ecommerce Play. Um, like. People don’t if they’re not getting the social like kudos right of having the book up on the wall or whatever it may be um I think sometimes we struggled and so I I think that makes a ton of sense in terms of having something that you know has the the look and feel of seaweed more so than conventional plastics.

Julia Marsh:     Right? It’s like it’s a great design Opportunity. There are so many different colors and textures that we can play with utilizing. What’s naturally found in different types of seaweeds and then in addition to that we’re looking at the different messaging that we can use to make again. Make people feel really great about this choice whether that’s being able to track exactly where this seaweed bag came from maybe the farmer who grew the seaweed that was used to make the bag again kind of reaffirming that connection between the person and the material they’re using or. Humans and nature and then also really assuring them that this is not some attempt at greenwashing that we’ve gone through the necessary actions to get this material properly tested and that it is in fact, home compostable such that you could mix it in with food scraps in your backyard compost. And it’s going to turn into healthy soil.

James McWalter: Yeah, that was actually the next question because we have you know, definitely on the production side. You know see we is this kind of net sequester of carbon relative definitely relative to petrochemicals going into pastek and then on the disposal side as you mentioned it’s this kind of home compostable. Um I guess 1 of the things with with any sort of kind of material science.

Julia Marsh:     Um, as a.

James McWalter: You know the the more composable It is the more I just open it is to ah degradation through the supply chain and and so how do you think about that balance I.

Julia Marsh:     Right? Man it’s such a fine line to walk. Yeah, so we are constantly treading this line and trying to find what are the absolute best applications for this material where it’s okay that when it’s exposed to heat. And moisture. It’s going to degrade very quickly. We found that retail bags and poly bags are a great first starting place. So that’s why we’re focused on working with brands like Target walmart and cbs to help replace the retail bag and we’re also focused on working with Apparel brands to find really great. Yeah partners who want their customers to engage with plastic- free packaging. Um, so that’s that’s a focus at the moment. The the degradation timeline is quite quickly right now and so we’re also constantly improving the formulation so that it can withstand higher humidity. And temperatures while in shipment but that when it does enter a compost environment. It’s going to degrade extremely quickly.

James McWalter: Yeah I could imagine this kind of a wedge of potential products that could be wrapped right in the in in the sway material and you you start at the at the area. That’s you know pretty high turnover. You know, used very rapidly and then over time as the formulation gets you know more stable. Um, from degradation point of View. You can kind of move into that like that that larger wedge of like every product in the world kind of thing eventually there you go.

Julia Marsh:     Exactly every product in the world. It’s an ecosystem we never would claim to be the Silver bullet or the 1 answer there are so many cool materials out there in new systems. A lot of the best climate solutions are just related to efficiency and and common sense.

James McWalter: And.

Julia Marsh:     So wherever we we make the most sense that’s where we want to deploy ourselves.

James McWalter: Understood and I guess yeah 1 of the as was difficulties with new materials is there’s typically a pretty sophisticated and well-established supply chain to move that material through so you know from constructing plastic to its molding.

Julia Marsh:     The.

James McWalter: And then being delivered on ships to you know the manufacturer and all those kind of things. How do you think about? let’s say fitting in versus disrupting parts of that supply chain to I suppose that have the greatest impact. So.

Julia Marsh:     Right? We want to create the lowest lift transition to using our material. We want to make it extremely easy for brands to work with us and that means we’ve designed our material to plug into existing plastic infrastructure and plastic. Companies a lot of them really are dying. They’re itching to bring in more sustainable materials that are compatible with their machinery plastic production is a well- oiled process. It’s ah that was a nice little pun I inserted there the actual you know? ah. Production of plastics from from pellet to film is quite efficient and and can be very low energy and there’s actually a path to decarbonizing that process. What’s missing is the material itself is not. Good for the planet at either end of life and so that’s how we kind of fill out this system um to be eventually fully decarbonized as well as fully regenerative.

James McWalter: That’s interesting. So you mentioned both the brands. But then also the I guess the plastic Manufacturers themselves and so are you you talking to? both? are you interested in potentially licensing to the plastics or working with brands who have more maybe of a vertically integrated model. How do you think about those kind of tradeoffs.

Julia Marsh:     Yeah, at least to start. We’re just again focused on getting our material in the hands of brands and and in the hands of shoppers because we really want to get that data back about how people interact with the material are they Composting. It does any of this seaweed Story Resonate. Um. So to begin with. We’re going to be working with contract Manufacturers in the future. It may be the case that we do vertically integrate and either we work directly more directly with seaweed farms to refine and extract the useful parts of that seaweed or we produce our own um resin that can be distributed to plastic Manufacturers and that’s sort of a ah. To be determined decision.

James McWalter: Absolutely and I just what are those kind of next you know next 1224 months time you know Milestones that you’re hoping to can reach.

Julia Marsh:     We’re focused on pilots we we were the winners at the Beyond the bag challenge which is how we’ve come to. Thank you really amazing experience. It was sponsored by ideo closed loop and then the consortium to reinvent the bag which included Target walmart cbs and a number of other global retailers.

James McWalter: Congrats.

Julia Marsh:     So what? that’s enabled us to do is really understand in ah in a micro level what these brands need us to achieve in order to adopt our material so over the course of the next couple of years. We’ll be working for pilots with those folks and then we’ll also be launching smaller scale pilots with apparel and cosmetic companies. And then the other big thing is we always constantly want to be achieving the highest level of certification. Not just related to the compostability of the material but also the nutrient quality of the material this idea that we could actually add again benefit to. Soil when the material decomposes and how well the the source material is certified as important as well. So there are all these emerging standards around ocean forestry that we’re really excited to hit partake in such as. This sort of fsc certified equivalent for ocean forests called the asc msc seaweed standard and expanding fair trade practices for the seaweed industry which is like very quickly growing so those are 2 focus areas I would say.

James McWalter: On that latter point. So what are the other kind of use cases for seaweed and I guess is there enough supply on the seaweed side. You know if were more and more different types of use cases are now turning to seaweed that we need to see a massive ramp up. You know the Amazon size you know area. Do we need. More than that. How do you think about that.

Julia Marsh:     So currently seaweed is primarily used in food or as a thickening agent in different pharmaceuticals or cosmetic products. There is more than enough seaweed seaweed is not the issue. Challenge in the bottleneck that we’ll run into is the processing capacity of those yeah existing seaweed processors so we will eventually you know at least in our current projections in about five years we’ll need to see growth with our current network. Expanding the capacity of yeah processing the seaweed but there’s quite a lot of ocean and the main limitation is yeah, not the seaweed.

James McWalter: No. Yeah, it’s interesting because you mentioned the carbon sequestration power of seaweed and I know there are a few companies who are looking at just seaweed as a pure carbon sequester so grow a ton of seaweed cut it allow it to sink to the bottom of the ocean. Hopefully it’ll stay there for at least a few decades and that’s a potential method. You know.

Julia Marsh:     Here. And.

James McWalter: But that’s to be honest I think that’s the big question right? It’s like we don’t we know so little about you know what happens you know below a mile below the surface that you know do these things kind of stay down there. Um, and so it is interesting where you have a number of people kind of re-looking at something that you know people have been using for.

Julia Marsh:     Is it.

James McWalter: 10000 years for different types of materials in these kind of new ways to combat you know the the climate crisis.

Julia Marsh:     Yeah,, there’s wonderful opportunities eventually for us to develop simile systems or to partner with farms that are trying to build out you know Kelp or seaweed related carbon Offset Programs. Science is constantly evolving and of course we would also want to focus on the farmer themselves benefiting from that um system. So It’s something we’re keeping our eye On. We’re also want to maximize the amount of carbon sequestered by our material itself and. Creating the best pathway for it to actually be composted so that we’re not sending it to landfill and further contributing to other sorts of emissions. Um, but something cool that I didn’t mention before is that when our material goes to landfill if it does it emits and these are based on our just our initial projections. But it is. It’s projected to emit eighty eight percent less C O 2 equivalent emissions in a landfill than paper which is something I thought was so wonderful and unexpected because you know whenever we’re considering any of these replacements for plastics 1 way that plastic does win is in the C O 2 equivalent emissions.

James McWalter: Right? It just stays there forever right? And so it it never actually goes into the atmosphere.

Julia Marsh:     In landfill? Um, so yeah, right? So that was 1 kind of great if you’re comparing paper to seaweed we win in that category.

James McWalter: Yeah, that’s fascinating and and super interesting and I guess you know there is this kind of balance between um, yeah, personal and I guess institutional or or commercial behavior around where the material ends up going right? And so.

Julia Marsh:     Um, ah.

James McWalter: Yeah, there’s a lot of cool companies, comassing companies and so on and so we also have to I guess Collectively have a lever around changing behavior to actually you know.

Julia Marsh:     You have.

James McWalter: Put it into the compost or learn about how to kind of dispose properly of these things as we kind of add materials that just don’t go into a landfill or shouldn’t be going just into a landfill and.

Julia Marsh:     Yeah, it shouldn’t feel at least composting behavior shouldn’t feel alien or like an exclusive process someone in a city can compost. You know in their own home with ah with a bucket and a carbon filter. It’s actually. Ah, quite easy to do and the wonderful thing about it is we divert. Yeah, all this food from landfill and all those additional carbon equivalent emissions and there is increasing compost infrastructure. It’s sort of an inevitability. You know, recycling infrastructure’s only really been around since the Seventy s compost infrastructure is. Inevitably going to scale and be more accessible to more people.

James McWalter: And you mentioned a bit earlier about you know during Covid we got used to a lot of packages of various types showing up at the home and besides that you also have this kind of um, you know because of fears of cleanliness and so on people I think got very used to or begin more positively. Came to more positively view disposables of of various types right? kind of a health point of view. How do you think about that like is that going to be something that’ll take a little while to go back to what have been before which was like a kind of ah a move towards us disposables. Um, and yeah, how do you think Covid I guess changes The space.

Julia Marsh:     A.

Julia Marsh:     That’s an interesting question I think more than anything we are programmed to desire convenience and who can blame us and I think that what. Solution We’ve developed represents is a pathway to still provide a very convenient solution to the shopper. Not necessarily asking folks like yourself or anyone else to do anything wildly outside of the ordinary but to engage with composting behavior and. Make it as easy as possible for you to do the right thing just by swapping out the material and I think that’s a great opportunity that brands have like I was mentioning before that brands have this great opportunity to enable guilt free shopping by by subbing out their plastic packaging. Um. But I don’t think it’s impossible that we might return to the milkman and always have you know, reusable packaging for our bottles and and our bags I think that’s entirely feasible.

James McWalter: Yeah, and I guess I goes into this concept of circular economy nearly by definition circular economies become more localized right? because the transit is such like ah becomes a larger factor the more circular the the economy I guess and so if you can make that transport piece tighter.

Julia Marsh:     The earth.

James McWalter: Um, especially if it’s going back to the same place from where it began. Um, you have this kind of you know your like scalability kind of reverses in these interesting ways.

Julia Marsh:     Right? Yeah and I think just another piece because you hinted at it when we talk about circular systems or closed-loop systems so often we focus on mechanical recycling and I think oftentimes we we forget about biological recycling and that’s what compost infrastructure represents.

James McWalter: And.

Julia Marsh:     Opportunity to feed into other aspects of the regenerative movement by creating healthy soil more nutrient-rich soil which is responsible for like all life on earth.

James McWalter: Absolutely yeah I guess I guess even the way I was describing. It was very much a literal circle right? like the same thing starts an end in the same place and with a few different kind of steps but it’s definitely something much more akin to you know, rebuilding an ecosystem of sorts right? where you have tons and tons of inputs and tons ons of outputs become inputs.

Julia Marsh:     As a.

James McWalter: And basically ah like an interweb of yeah things like ah, any ecosystem whether you know it’s a field in the west of Ireland or the rainforest or like you know, ah seaweed off the coast of Carmel Um, you know, ah like yeah right? So like if you look at those like all the inputs and outputs are constantly kind of like interacting at each other.

Julia Marsh:     Right.

Julia Marsh:     Isn’t it.

James McWalter: And I guess I also fall into that kind of engineering mindset of a circle being a circle and not a lot else outside of it. Yeah.

Julia Marsh:     It’s a multi-ringed Venn Diagram Probably I love solutions for the climate crisis that tackle multiple issues at the same time and what I love about our solution in particular and many of the emerging sort of benevolent materials in the space is that. We’re addressing not just the climate crisis not just the plastic problem. But also all these social injustices that have emerged as a result of the climate crisis and so the more we can find solutions that democratize access to benevolent materials I Just think that the more we bring it humanity into the conversation. Which again is also very often overlooked.

James McWalter: Absolutely and you mentioned kind of going through some of these certifying kind of processes and I guess 1 of the difficulties that the average consumer has I guess is figuring out what all these potential labelings or you know is fair trade. Okay anymore we don’t know anymore you know like all these kind of things.

James McWalter: Um, how do you think about like the balance of give oversupplying information to a consumer who often are making a relatively snap judgment and really at the end often. The consumer just is like is this the guilt-free decision or not right. And so I myself couldn’t go back and forth. But yeah I’d love to hear your thoughts On. Um yeah, labeling and of packaging and things like that. So.

Julia Marsh:     Well specifically with packaging and specifically with compostables. There are some very frequent yeah confusing labels that make it really difficult for someone to do the right thing if something says it’s 1 hundred percent compostable that does not mean that it’ll degrade in your backyard. And it doesn’t mean that it’s made only from plants. It just means that it’s industrially compostable and composting is binary. It’s either 1 hundred percent or it’s not at all so saying it’s 1 hundred percent compostable is not a further like reassurance. Um, and I think. Yeah, oftentimes the materials that we’re interacting with that are available to us that are labeled as being compostable are only part biobase. They’re not even 1 hundred percent dependent on plants. They can still have petroleum-based binding agents integrated in them which means you’re not actually breaking free from plastics or the fossil fuel industry. Um. There’s also yeah, this opportunity to yeah, better label the actual time span that a material might degrade in ideal conditions. So increasingly I’d like to see labeling that very quickly tells the shopper without them having to think too much about it. This is going to decompose in 4 to 6 weeks. It’s. Ah, carbon-neutral or its carbon Negative. It’s made from x y and z materials. In our case, seaweed and plants. Um, and maybe even if they do care it was it was you know, cultivated or produced under fair trade conditions and those are the four major. Points I would look out for although we can we can add more the more information I generally think the better.

James McWalter: Sure on just that um and so I guess you know if I think about ah the more people and we talked about this little bit at the very beginning but like you know we want more people working on these problems while more people doing interesting things often. It is there are these barriers. Entry both real and often perceived right? We talked about you know this perception. You need to be scientists or this perception that you need to yeah have worked in the industry for 30 years or whatever it may be um, let’s say you know I was a next or there was a person who’s like the next generation analog of you know what? you’re what you’ve been doing over the last few years.

Julia Marsh:     Um, here.

James McWalter: And what’s kind of advice. You tell that person get started.

Julia Marsh:     I would say that the network that you have available to you multiplies so quickly as soon as folks learn you’re trying to make the planet a better place from a practical. Perspective. So I think the more practically grounded and the more intersectional your solution is the more likely folks are to help you and the biggest thing that I learned early on which I hinted at earlier was i. Need to to become very good at admitting when I did not know something or fully understand something that humility made it much easier for me to learn and to bring in the right people to help and then the other thing I would recommend is that you bring in talents which really well complement yourself. So. I’m a designer I love to make beautiful objects I love to communicate stories. But I don’t necessarily have a granular understanding of seaweed chemistry. So I brought in the talent and the skill set as quickly as possible to round out my own skillset. Have 2 amazing co-founders who complement me very well. My co-founder Matt has a background in sustainable Development. He’s worked with public and private companies expanding their triple bottom line has a really robust sense of what needs to go into a lifecycle assessment my other co-founder leland mashmere was the former chief brand officer at Giboni he’s built. Global brands. He understands executive leadership. He understands how to you know, build a massive company that’s going have massive scale. So I’m really thankful for those skillets and I could go through the whole team but we won’t do that now.

35:32.79   James McWalter: And yeah, no, and it’s great. It’s great to to kind of mention those cofounders you know it’s it’s so such an interesting kind of set of relationships and how those develop over the years and you know all the best companies like have really strong like early relationships and and that kind of trust that kind of goes from there. Um.

Julia Marsh:     Over.

James McWalter: I mean it is you know I guess the thing that I find ah people which kind of touches upon your your previous point. Um that I find catches people up is that either people you know don’t talk enough about what they’re thinking right? or are talk so much. They don’t listen.

James McWalter: Right? And like these are 2 kinds of spectrums are 2 2 side of the same spectrum I guess and so on on the first point which I get your man like like I tell people all the time if you have an idea like just tell tell people about it just hey I have ah you know do you know anybody who knows anything about seaweed.

Julia Marsh:     Um, yeah, that happened. Um, let a.

James McWalter: It’s like oh you know my cousin Susan like has ah you know she was ah a Ph.D. in seaweed like in Norway or whatever maybe and like all of a sudden you have that connection and if you keep it to yourself or um, yeah, you don’t get there but equally on the other side I think like asking those questions like.

Julia Marsh:     Ah, address.

James McWalter: You know when you actually then get into the room with the expert. It’s just asking questions. It’s like really you know you can give your 1 minute spiel or your 1-minute pitch and so on. But I always find that it’s so helpful to just like go in and you know be but well prepared with like the 5 questions like you would love to have answers with and like. If you knew the answers those they would move you 1 Step forward to like having a real product or a real company.

Julia Marsh:     Yep, absolutely and then walking away from that conversation saying or maybe understanding what ah you know the 3 things that this person I’ve just met really loves to do and would be willing to continue helping me with and having this. Network of advisors that you can just immediately call on is really really helpful because building a business especially in the climate space can be very isolating sometimes and I drive so much comfort from yeah, connecting with other founders and yeah and with another climate. Enthusiasts and cried, enthusiasts. It makes you feel a lot less alone.

James McWalter: It just on the kind of aloneness then I guess do you think kind of climate is lonelier than some of these other spaces or how do you think about that.

Julia Marsh:     Well I don’t know because I I guess I can’t compare it to anything else. No I think that it I misspoke The challenge is so great and the potential and the urgency of these solutions is so great that it can feel at times Like. You’re you know, working on a never-ending problem so seeking out these kinds of friends and and and advisors yeah can help you feel less alone in the fight against the climate crisis.

James McWalter: Right.

James McWalter: Yeah I guess that’s why I think you know you mentioned this earlier but like why people are so friendly. It’s like I think you go through this process of like oh no like semi despair. That’s just too big for 1 person and then it’s like oh I literally need everybody I need competitors.

Julia Marsh:     Ah, right.

James McWalter: Right? Like you know I need at every point like we need 20 million people like changing their lives like tomorrow to work on some of these things just have a chance of um, you know something close to success and so yeah, go on. Yeah.

Julia Marsh:     Um, is a. Oh It’s yeah, it’s very freeing actually that I can approach most if not all of our competitors and say hey let’s be friends you want to figure this out together. Um, but that’s overall been the theme. Especially in the seaweed space. But I imagine throughout the climate space as well.

James McWalter: No absolutely and I was working on a kind of agtech idea like a year year and a half ago and I just contacted every ah competitor in the space and like ninety percent of them got on a call me I was like I’m competing with you you know? and so on I ended up not working on that idea too much longer, but it was fascinating how yeah open people were because.

Julia Marsh:     Enter.

James McWalter: Pretty much everyone was like all right? We just you know even if we become a billion dollar company. We need a hundred more just to to like tackle the problem Julia Marsh:   does but absolutely brilliant I suppose before we finish off is there anything I should have asked you about but did not.

Julia Marsh:     Right? This is.

Julia Marsh:     Oh boy? Well, we are hiring currently. So if anyone listening happens to know an incredible Ph.D. Biopolymer scientist. We’re looking for a very senior role to help.

James McWalter: Bright.

Julia Marsh:     Expand our engineering team and we’re hiring actively at this moment. So our job descriptions are listed at our website Swayfuturecom/careers would be the biggest help.

James McWalter: Absolutely and we’ll post that link on the show notes as well. Julia Marsh:   Thank you so much has been brilliant.

Julia Marsh:     I Really appreciate it. Great to meet you and great to have this conversation.

Plastic in Concrete?! – E65

Great to chat with Sebastian Sajoux, CEO at Arqlite, a recycling technology company developing high-efficiency materials, made from 100% recycled plastic! We discussed how they create Smart gravel from hard to recycle plastic, how a focus on local solutions avoids CO2 emissions for concrete, regulations to remove the plastics from the environment, the need for government incentives to speed up the process to help the environment and more!

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Decarbonizing Cement – E56

Great to chat with Sherif Elsayed-Ali, Co-Founder and CEO at Carbon Re, Carbon Re’s mission is to enable the decarbonization of foundation industries, starting with cement! We discussed cement supply chains, their carbon emissions, fuel efficiency, scaling of alternative fuels, the drivers for users and investors to cut carbon emissions and more!

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Biomass for the Circular Economy – E52

Great to chat with Petri Tolonen CEO of CH-Bioforce Oy, a company converting biomass like wood into high-value materials and replace fossil fuel raw materials in textiles and packaging! We discussed the unique process for processing biomass they developed, how they are scaling their production, why technology licensing is an interesting and underutilised business model for startups, the importance of government support to kickstart the circular economy and more! 

Biomass for the Circular Economy – E51

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Replacing Plastic with AirCarbon – E50

Great to chat with Mark Herrema, cofounder and CEO of Newlight Technologies, a biotechnology company producing advanced sustainable materials! We discussed how they use naturally occurring microorganisms to eat greenhouse gases and produce a material called AirCarbon which can replace many uses for plastics, their 18 year journey to build such a disruptive technology, how the investing landscape for climattech has changed over the last few years and more!

Wonder in Waste -E20

Really interesting to get into compostable plastics with Tony Bova,  CEO and founder of Mobius, a startup developing compostable plastics. We discussed how plastic use goes up with regenerative farming which makes compostable plastics an essential part of a sustainable food system, how plastics fit into circular economy, the careful consideration they gave the plastics value chain when deciding their go to market strategy, what universities can do to encourage more startups, how he balanced starting a startup with finishing a PHD and more!

Materials, AI, and Decarbonization – E1

Great chat with Greg Mulholland, CEO and Co-founder of Citrine Informatics as AI Platform for materials development. We discussed what the early days of Citrine looked like, how they powered through some low times, the massive opportunity of applying machine learning to applied materials science, whether cleantech was becoming mainstream for VCs, how data regulation like GDPR compares to regulation in the materials space, how MBAs can be a form of identity, whether we will see explicit geo-engineering and the potential of superconductors generating future noble prizes and more.

Here is the audio. Some excerpts lightly edited:

MCWALTER: What have you learned as most about hiring and retaining like high quality talent?

MULHOLLAND: The most important thing, I think, is that we’ve been really intentional about our culture from the beginning… A core part of our culture is willingness and ability to give feedback…  and we make it a point to lift each other up. And and I think those characteristics have really led to our success and retention because, people want to feel valued and they do on our team.


MCWALTER: It appears to me that VCs are chronically underrating cleantech; as Citrine recently raised a Series B, would you agree? 

MULHOLLAND: I think less and less, especially since Sequoia, I think sort of notably, announced that they believed that clean tech was the future and a really important investment thesis. All of a sudden, so much attention turned to our space. I would say we’re one aspect of being able to make the world more sustainable place, but I wouldn’t even characterise (Citrine) as pure clean tech. We certainly have some enterprise software bones about us.

You know, honestly, my experience talking to venture investors is that they understand that the world is changing and needs to be a cleaner, greener place. And there’s really no dispute about that. I think a lot of people have gathered that a lot of investors don’t spend a lot of time in that space. And so, often when raising our series A, but even occasionally in our series B, I had to explain to a venture investor controlling hundreds of millions of dollars or more, that the chemicals industry and the materials industry is actually a huge industry. And like, you know, sometimes it gets reactions “Oh, isn’t that a niche?” And it’s like, no, it’s actually, you know, a double digit percent of the global economy. And they’re like, “Well, I know what BSF and Dow and DuPont and 3M”. And then I list off another dozen or 20. And they’re like, “Well, I haven’t heard of half of those”. I’m like, well, all of them do more than $10 billion a year in revenue. And then I say and then there are the ones that do only a billion dollars a year in revenue and you can just see their eyes go wide because they don’t live in that space.


MCWALTER:  how does your kind of approach and model of the world in terms of decarbonisation differ from the proponents of the green new deal and similar approaches?

MULHOLLAND:I don’t know they differ in the long term view to your point. I mean, look, I I want everything to be recyclable, biodegradable, and green in every possible way from from cradle to grave, and entirely circular. From a policy perspective, I think a lot of people just sort of collapse clean tech into one idea. And clean tech isn’t one idea. I mean, you’ve got everything from power generation, which is on a lot of people’s minds. And I think the green new deal is a big component of power generation generation infrastructure behind it. And we don’t touch that, you know, I, I would love that for the grid to run entirely on solar, and maybe we’ll help invent new solar panels. 

At the same time, you know, I think there are a lot of regulators who had been asked to think about new materials and chemicals in the environment that don’t have full context on how things came to be, and how things might progress over time, in the shadow of certain regulations. And I think one that’s really interesting is you know, every once in a while, and particularly just before COVID, the European Commission and the European Union, were talking about banning plastics. And it’s like, well, okay, but here’s, here’s the thing. Almost everything has plastic in it. I mean, even the clothes we are wearing, have some synthetic materials in them, which sort of described succinctly are plastic in some way or another. And so this idea that we can, with enough government force and enough effort, rapidly remove certain types of materials from our world, is just nonsense. But I totally agree with the incentives and the pressure behind it. And so, you know, our approach is to say, look, because of regulatory pressure, consumer preference, the state of the world and so many other things we’re headed on inexorable march towards sustainability. In 100 years, the world’s either more sustainable place, or it’s roughly gone. And, in my view, tools like Citrine’s are simply an accelerant on our ability to make progress against those goals


MCWALTER: Thinking about like Elon Musk’s various ventures, which will have the longest lasting positive effects ?

MULHOLLAND: I just think Tesla is incredibly exciting short term. They’ve totally turned heads and changed minds with respect to electric cars. I actually think SpaceX is going to have a longer term impact though, because democratising access to space, whether it be for satellites or travel is going to really, really transform how the world approaches things. And you can already see the price pressure of SpaceX changing the dynamics of the space industry, which I think yields enormous opportunities regardless of what types of cars we’re driving.


MCWALTER: Was there anything that I should have asked you about but did not?

MULHOLLAND: I have I think we’re getting close to some real interesting breakthroughs in superconduction. I don’t think we’re going to have commercializable room temperatures superconduction anytime soon but I do think there’s some really cool technology coming around how we control power and how we are able to flex the grid. As we as we learn more about how to control the electromagnetic spectrum around us, I think we’re going to develop new exciting products, but also a more efficient world. And fom a materials perspective, that’s something I’m really excited about, and it’s still fundamental, but I think it’ll be transformational when the time comes. Probably years away but but still transformational.

Learned alot from Greg!