By: Scarlett Buckley
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By upcycling coconut husks and shrimp shells, Fortuna Cools and Cruz Foam are diverting agricultural waste from landfills and offering circular polystyrene alternatives that match its performance.
Expanded polystyrene (EPS), most commonly known by the Styrofoam™ brand of the material, has been a go-to packaging solution for over 50 years. Industry has come to depend on its durability and light weight; and especially, its temperature-control, water-resistance and shock-absorption capabilities — it is ideal keeping perishables fresh and cool during transport. As such, it is one of the most widely used plastics — predominantly used for packaging (40 percent) and insulation. Every year, more than 14 million tons of polystyrene is produced and over 2 million tons go to landfill — a whopping 25-35 percent of all landfill waste is from polystyrene products.
And polystyrene food and beverage containers are one of the main offenders of marine pollution; it never fully biodegrades — instead, crumbling into thousands of puffed fragments that drift through our waters, killing and harming marine life.
Thankfully, two companies have found a way to recreate polystyrene’s functionality with up-cycled agricultural waste — creating viable, circular and sustainable alternatives to this versatile, plastic foam.
Image Credit: Fortuna Cools
Philippines-based Fortuna Cools is on a mission to replace plastic foam with natural fibers once and for all. Understanding that the future must be built with better materials, co-founder and CEO David Cutler — who studied design at Stanford University, and has worked in development and consulting for startups and NGOs across Asia — and his team developed the Nutshell Cooler insulated with coconut husks, a byproduct of the coconut oil industry.
“Coconut husks evolved to protect fresh coconut meat from the hot tropical sun — the original cooler. These coconut husks are burned as waste by the billions today; so, when we process and use them for insulation instead, we keep CO2 out of the atmosphere and plastic out of the landfill — or the ocean,” Cutler explains to Sustainable Brands®.
Fortuna Cools sources its coconut husks from four provinces across the Philippines — its supplier network includes over 1,000 small-scale farming families — and plans to expand across the country and around the region. To date, the company has turned 600,000 coconut husks into Nutshell Coolers, sustainable insulation and larger coolers for a variety of industrial uses. All of its products (which are made from recycled polyester) are insulated with biodegradable coconut fiber; when it does eventually break down, the insulation makes for a great mulch, growing medium, or compost amendment.
“Customers range from vegetable traders in the Philippines to picnickers in Central Park. If it’s good enough for a fish vendor in the 100-degree Manila heat, it’s good enough for a grocery run in Seattle. Part of the fun in competing with and replacing plastic foam is seeing all the different ways that people are starting to adopt coconut-fiber insulation — the market is just so big,” Cutler says.
Fortuna Cools is also devoted to supporting local farmers and communities. Upcycling coconut husks gives small-scale coconut farmers a new source of income and has built a biomaterial ecosystem, providing jobs and research opportunities. Cutler explains that the company was built with farmers and rural communities from day one; and as they grow, these communities will benefit in the form of extra income, new jobs and pride as their harvest is enjoyed and appreciated around the world.
“We’re building the new standard for insulation in outdoor gear and packaging — the thing people will expect to see inside coolers and shipping boxes the way people expect good jackets to be Gore-Tex and takeout containers to be biodegradable today,” Cutler asserts. “We’ll have upcycling hubs in a handful of different countries in five years — converting over a million coconut husks into Nutshell products and insulation every year.”
Founded in 2017 in Santa Cruz, California, Cruz Foam stemmed from a research project by UC Santa Cruz Engineering Professor Marco Rolandi and graduate researcher John Felts, when they were both at the University of Washington. Rolandi had been studying biomimicry — specifically, ways to use naturally sourced materials for things such as biomedical tools and plastics. When Felts started similar research on chitin — the second most abundant biopolymer in the world; found in organisms including plants, insects, mushrooms and crustacean shells — and found that it showcased unique properties, particularly in its strength-to-weight ratio, the two joined forces.
As ocean lovers and avid surfers, they both relocated to Santa Cruz to continue their research — having identified an opportunity to make a bio-foam material to replace the petroleum-based foam in surfboards. Felts and Rolandi quickly realized that this regenerative material could have a greater impact beyond the surf world and transitioned their efforts to displace single-use plastics in the protective packaging and cold-chain industries. Six years later, the pair has created a unique, chitin-based patented bio-benign material that matches the technical specs, insulative characteristics and protective qualities of petroleum-based EPE (expanded polyethylene), all at a similar price point.
“Our chitin is primarily sourced from shrimp shells (the shrimp industry waste that is usually sent to landfill) from sustainable fisheries that are GMP- and HACCP-certified. We chose to source our chitin from shrimp shells, because we saw unnecessary waste going to landfill and knew we could divert that waste and give it a useful second and third life,” CEO and co-founder Felts told SB.
To make Cruz Foam, the shrimp shells are treated with an alkaline solution — removing proteins (including the protein that causes shellfish allergies) and minerals. The remaining chitin is then further processed and de-acetylated, resulting in chitosan.
“The magic of Cruz Foam and why we can ensure a frictionless transition lies in the fact that our foam can be produced on existing extrusion manufacturing equipment. The foam can be sold in a sheet/roll format and be die-cut, colored, printed on, laminated and converted into limitless applications. We plan to utilize toll manufacturing to produce our material nationally and internationally,” Felts says.
Cruz Foam is working with key industry partners and organizations to support the improvement of local packaging collection and disposal for the increasing number of companies producing sustainable packaging. Many of its products are curbside recyclable (the foam can be composted in backyards and industrial facilities; and the packages with foam and cardboard are curbside recyclable — as the foam dissolves in the cardboard repulping process), which is a more easily understood and practiced method of disposal for mainstream consumers. For B2B applications, they recommend collection/take-back and recycling, where possible.
“We understand that our society has a long way to go when it comes to waste management, which is why we are constantly working with local and national legislators to promote broadening accessibility to composting and recycling,” Felts explains.
Cruz Foam has raised over $18 million in funding — including from actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Ashton Kutcher, who both serve as investors and advisers. The company has already developed packaging for customers including Farm Cottage Wines, Real Good Fish, Venus Distilleries and Verve Coffee; and in February, it landed its first major partner, Atlantic Packaging — which will help scale capacity by rolling out products made with Cruz Foam later this year.
Through a lifecycle analysis, the company estimates replacing polystyrene with products such as Cruz Foam (and other waste-mitigating, biodegradable alternatives like it) would mitigate 17,000 tons of CO2 per year.
“This year, we have successfully launched commercial products and are introducing our innovative packaging solutions into multiple industries,” Felts says. “Looking ahead to the next five years, our vision is to revolutionize the packaging industry as a whole by promoting new materials like our own that benefit the planet rather than harm it.
“The most cogent strategy to prevent future plastic pollution is to avoid virgin plastic production from the outset. Our ultimate goal is to inspire companies around the world to embrace a more circular model that contributes to a greener planet.”