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- Susan Rockefeller
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Spotlight On:

Full Cycle Bioplastics

What's the Story?

Full Cycle Bioplastics is a technology company that creates a marine degradable, bio-based plastic alternative. Called PolyHydroxyAlkanoates or PHAs, FCB’s materials are naturally-occurring polymers made when bacteria “eat” organic waste, turning it into a “fat” that can be used in place of oil-based plastics. And since it’s natural, it degrades harmlessly at the end of life.

How are they different?

Full Cycle Bioplastics isn’t just recycling the harmful products that pollute our environment and our oceans; they’re developing a necessary alternative to materials that have become ubiquitous. With luck, they will help us (especially industries with food waste) fully transition away from problematic materials.

What inspires us?

CEO Andrew Falcon wasn’t always in the business of sustainability. In fact, he started out his career in plastics and packaging. But his conscience led him to develop Full Cycle Bioplastics, understanding the important—and problematic—role that plastics play in our global ecosystem.

Q&A

Andrew Falcon

CEO, Full Cycle Bioplastics

By now, everyone knows that plastics are a problem. But besides recycling packages and skipping the straws, what can we actually do to challenge the dominance of plastic in our lives? Andrew Falcon, CEO of Full Cycle Bioplastics, has one important solution. “It’s about changing our perspective to stop thinking about materials as waste, and instead think about all materials as resources,” he explains to Musings. Full Cycle Bioplastics is one of the most innovative players we’ve encountered working in the circular economy. They produce “nature’s plastic” or PolyHydroxyAlkanoates (PHAs). It’s basically bacteria fat, but it also happens to functions as a bio-based and biodegradable plastic alternative. Unlike the oil-based plastics we’re used to using, PHAs don’t contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, don’t pollute the oceans and don’t contain toxic chemicals. In other words, it transforms low-value waste into a high-value product without negative consequences. In fact, Falcon suggests, using bioplastics can even be a net boon for companies. Full Cycle Bioplastics is soon opening its pilot facility, which will convert food waste into compost and PHAs for re-use; Falcon knows this is a “critical” step towards offering up their technology more broadly and providing the sustainable plastic alternative our planet needs. Turns out bacteria have a lot to offer us, if we’re ready to buy in.

What sparked your mission to tackle plastic pollution by creating environmentally-friendly “bioplastic?”

After spending the early part of my career involved in traditional plastics and packaging, I came to better understand the tremendous unintended consequences of those industries and recycling systems. My increased awareness coincided with fatherhood and two lovely children, and I found that my perspective and priorities had shifted dramatically. I wanted to be a part of a sustainable solution for materials and packaging, and to stop contributing to a linear industrial system that, if left unchecked, will damage the planet irreparably.

What exactly is bioplastic? And how is it created?

In the case of Full Cycle Bioplastics, our material is made from renewable organic resources and degrades harmlessly at the end of life. In that sense, it’s both “bio-based” and “biodegradable,” which represents the best of both worlds when talking about bioplastics.

Specifically, we produce PolyHydroxyAlkanoates (PHAs), which are a family of naturally-occurring polymers made by bacteria. Our non-GMO bacteria eat a wide variety of organic waste (such as un-recyclable food waste), turning it into PHA that they store internally and consume as energy when they don’t have other food to eat. PHA is actually bacteria fat!

Some people call it “nature’s plastic” because you can extract PHA and use it as an alternative to many typical oil-based plastics. But because it’s made naturally and is already a part of the earth’s existing biome, it has extremely attractive degradation properties at end-of-life. In fact, different types of PHAs have been certified as biodegradable in anaerobic, soil, freshwater and marine environments, as well as compostable in both home and industrial composting facilities.

Unlike most oil-based alternatives, PHA at minimum “does no harm” once its useful life is over. In the case of Full Cycle’s technology, that end-of-life benefit goes one step further: because PHA itself is organic material, if you return it to us after use (as part of an organic waste recycling system, for example), we can use it as raw material to make virgin PHA again—a circular, regenerative material solution.

Why is regular plastic such a huge problem and how are your compostable alternatives a solution?

Regular plastics are ubiquitous—it’s almost impossible to imagine daily life without them, and there is a reason for that. Plastic is economical, and its functional properties lend it to a wide range of applications. But unfortunately, oil-based plastics were not created with end-of-life utilization in mind. The growth of the plastics industry has not seen a commensurate growth in systems for re-use or recycling. Plastics are hard to recycle, are growing in volume rapidly and are leaking at a tremendous rate into the environment and our oceans. What many people aren’t yet grasping is that we cannot recycle our way out of the current problem. A new and improved system needs to be created.

There will always be some plastic products that are either technically impossible or not economically viable to recycle. Many of those products are also often contaminated with organic material (like many types of food packaging). This is a portion of the market that would benefit from alternative materials and would be less damaging if they were compostable and part of an organics recycling loop.

Organic waste recycling infrastructure is increasingly being recognized as an essential component of holistic, sustainable materials systems, which we are huge advocates for. And we believe our technology—which makes high-value PHA bioplastic out of low-value organic waste inputs—could be a big part of helping catalyze that infrastructure investment. Basically, we would be making the recycling of organic waste more profitable for companies.

What has been the biggest challenge in developing this product and getting people to buy into its potential? What has been the easiest sell?

Let’s start with the easy part: everyone is enthusiastic about the idea of a circular materials loop for organic waste and plastics. Consumers and companies have been screaming for sustainable material alternatives for decades.

But this is a new material technology that is expensive to demonstrate, and to scale. We have a much deeper and wider “valley of death” than a typical startup focused on software or the next big app. Access to capital and partners to showcase successful operation of our system is essential, as is a better understanding of the long-term need.

Full Cycle Bioplastics is part of the growing movement towards a more “circular economy.” What does that mean, and why is it a critical part of the fight against climate change?

We are huge fans of the circular economy, and would particularly point out the tremendous work the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has done to bring this concept to light. To us, the circular economy is about efficient use and re-use of materials, whether technical or biological, and about systems that are designed to keep material circulating. It’s about changing our perspective to stop thinking about materials as waste, and instead thinking about all materials as resources.

What the circular economy is not is a continuation of the linear “take-make-waste” paradigm that underpinned growth in the consumer economy over the past 50+ years. Food and plastic waste contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, climate change and pollution of our ecosystems, and is among the largest environmental challenges facing the planet.

As a CEO and inventor, what excites you about being in the business of creating sustainable solutions? What concerns you?

I am constantly amazed and buoyed by growing awareness of environmental challenges, and the increasing conviction and willingness of everyday people to take action to drive change. We see the power of consumer sentiment in catalyzing policy and business shifts, and we should continue to harness this momentum to create new and better systems for the planet. Urgently! Today!

At the same time, the issues we’re addressing are complex, intertwined, system-level challenges. The reality is that there is not a single solution. What might work in the U.S. may be impractical in emerging markets. It’s important to remain open and supportive of new and different approaches. If we’re overly dogmatic, we can let the quest for a perceived perfect get in the way of real, practical good.

What’s your advice to the casual consumer who wants to phase out harmful plastic usage from their day-to-day life and begin replacing it with materials like your bioplastic?

Be aware. Educate yourself. Reduce and eliminate your use of plastics (especially single-use plastics) as best you can. Be open to new packaging or material alternatives. While that approach can feel incremental, one of the biggest levers we have as individual consumers is to actively encourage new and innovative systems by voting with our wallets!

And when it comes to plastics and packaging specifically, I would also remind people not to forget the positive impact that can come from compostable materials and organic material recycling.

What’s next for Full Cycle Bioplastics?

The world’s first closed-loop food-waste-to-PHA facility. Our pilot facility takes food waste and converts it into either compost for use with local farms who supply them produce, or PHA bioplastic for use in their internal food service operations. Demonstrating this circular model in a real-world operating environment will help us scale and showcase the power of our solution.

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Spotlight On:

Mara Hoffman

What's the Story?

For nearly 20 years, designer Mara Hoffman has been the creative force behind her popular, eponymous fashion brand. Her designs are effortlessly playful—the kind of clothes that women love to wear. But in 2015, Hoffman took a huge risk: she chose to shift to a sustainable business model, switching up everything from the fabrics she worked with to the construction of the hang-tag on her garments. The turning point? Becoming a mother and realizing that she had a role to play in securing a healthy future for her son.

How are they different?

Hoffman completely re-configured her business to incorporate sustainability at every step, from making swimwear out of post-consumer plastic bottles to using fibers from sustainably-harvested wood pulp in ready-to-wear designs. She does all this without compromising on style; a true feat.

What inspires us?

Hoffman practices what she preaches. She’s committed to the concept of quality over quantity, making sure that everything she sells is built to last — and personally limiting her consumption. “We really try to communicate the idea of buying less and wearing more, and investing in special pieces that will last,” she explained to Musings. It’s a novel — but powerful — approach for a consumer brand.

Q&A

Mara Hoffman

Founder

When designer Mara Hoffman launched her eponymous fashion brand back in 2000, sustainability wasn’t her primary ambition. But nearly 20 years later, Hoffman has taken her popular label and turned it into an example in the industry of planet-friendly practices, proving that even an unwieldy business like a fashion can — and should — responsibly put the environment first. Hoffman’s style has always been a hit, with department stores ordering up her eye-catching patterned pieces from the get-go. As her brand has matured, so have her standards; by 2015, Hoffman decided to make sustainability a guiding force of her business. “I came to a crossroads decision,” she explains to Musings: “Either I close the company, or completely shift our practices.” The result? A new focus on responsibly-manufactured textiles, sharper looks at factory conditions, and an ethos that prioritizes quality over quantity. Hoffman’s commitment to shifting every aspect of her business to fit her evolved understanding of her responsibility to the planet should be an inspiration for all designers and entrepreneurs: it’s possible to make important, positive changes at any step in the process.

You launched your eponymous brand, Mara Hoffman, back in 2000. How has your approach to sustainability in fashion changed over the nearly two decades you’ve been in the design industry?

When I first launched the company, we were just focused on making things work on a business level, so sustainability was not a factor. Now, we have sustainability top of mind when it comes to every facet of our approach, from design and manufacturing to shipping and communications. The message that we send to our customers is also different than it was in the beginning: we really try to communicate the idea of buying less and wearing more, and investing in special pieces that will last.

My own relationship to fashion has also shifted. I rarely buy new clothes, and if I do they are pieces that I will wear over and over for a long time. I also am a huge fan of vintage.

What spurred you to make responsible practices a more central part of your business?

As I started to cultivate an awareness of the fashion industry’s damaging effects on the planet, I was no longer willing to contribute to an environmental mess that my son’s generation would inherit. I came to a crossroads decision: either I close the company, or completely shift our practices.

What is the next big thing the fashion industry should be focusing on improving in 2019?

Slowing down timelines and the overall fashion calendar, and striving for complete transparency within supply chains.

What have been the biggest challenges to changing your brand for the better?

Finances are a big one. Sustainable materials and manufacturing comes with higher costs, so we are constantly navigating how and where to best invest our budget. The design process can also be tricky: sometimes we are limited by what we can do with a garment based on finding fabrics that are in alignment with our standards.

Your attention to sustainable details ranges from the innovative materials you’ve sourced for clothes all the way down to your brand’s hang tags, which are made of 80% recycled paper and cotton. What are a few unusual ways you’ve incorporated sustainable practices into your designs?

Some of the fabrics that we use are pretty incredible, in that they are made from unexpected materials. For example, some of our swimwear is generated from post-consumer plastic bottles. For ready-to-wear, we often use fibers that are made from the wood pulp of sustainably-harvested trees.

How can fashion companies incorporate higher standards for sustainability and ethical production into their business models?

Starting with what you are already familiar with is a good strategy for brands that want to become more sustainable. For instance, our first step was switching out our conventional swim fabrics for recycled ones. On a higher level, I would love to see more companies implementing take-back programs that rejuvenate worn garments. It’s a program that we are currently working on building ourselves.

Have you noticed a difference in the way consumers respond to brands like yours that put the planet first?

I think that today, more than ever, people have a greater awareness of the systems that they play a part in. As a result there is a growing number of consumers who want to know that they are investing their money with more responsible brands, and they are actively seeking these out.

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Susan Rockefeller