By: Aric Sleeper
View the full article here.
SANTA CRUZ — Tucked away in a nondescript building on the Westside of Santa Cruz, the crew at Cruz Foam creates tubes and pellets of eco-friendly foam made in part from upcycled shrimp shells, which they form into specialized packaging products — two of which recently launched — one to keep bottles intact and the other to keep perishable items cool on the way from Point A to Point B.
“There’s about 12 million tons of shrimp shell waste produced annually,” said co-founder and CEO of Cruz Foam John Felts. “Forty percent of that by weight is bipolymer chitin, so you can do the math. Five to 6 million tons is going completely unused because there’s no volume market that’s really capturing and understanding what nature has built.”
Chitin is a biodegradable polymer found naturally in shrimp shells and the exoskeletons of other arthropods such as crabs and lobsters and also gives form to the cell walls of fungi.
The upcycled chitin reused by Cruz Foam is derived from the waste caused by shelling shrimp for the seafood market and has been the primary component of Cruz Foam products since the company was founded, albeit with the original intention of creating eco-friendly surfboards, not foam packaging.
The launch of Cruz Foam’s two new products, Cruz Wrap and Cruz Cool, coincides with Plastic Free July as the up-and-coming company hopes to one day replace plastic foam packaging as the go-to material for shipping products across the globe and has even begun to use the same production facilities used by traditional plastic packaging producers so they don’t have to build factories from scratch.
“Instead of putting plastic pellets into one end of the extruder, we drop our pellets in,” said Cruz Foam CMO Leslie Nakajima. “We literally can go into a plastic foam factory and can use the same staff, the same equipment, the same everything.”
Local companies such as Verve Coffee Roasters and Real Good Fish are already on board and putting the sustainable packaging products to good use.
“We couldn’t be more excited." said Felts "We want to start local and really want to have the local impact because this has been the area that has given us a lot of our foundational support and really grown us to what we are today.”
Felts, who hails from East Bay, studied chemical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. After spending his free time in college gazing at the offshore oil rigs set against the Channel Islands while waiting for the next set of waves, he began to question whether he should succumb to a future in the petroleum industry, with plentiful jobs and alluring pay, or instead, use his newly gained expertise to benefit the ocean and the world-at-large.
“Most chemical engineers go towards jobs in oil and petroleum, and it’s kind of what I had in my mind,” said Felts. “When I was going to school, I was not only exposed to the ocean, but my relationship with it really transformed when my mom had a stroke my junior year. It really redefined my own values and what I wanted to do with my life.”
Felts got a job in environmental consulting, where he learned more about government regulations and the adverse effects that industrial chemicals have had on the environment. However, he still yearned for a more proactive role in saving the planet. Felts went back to school at the University of Washington, where he worked under professor Marco Rolandi, his future co-founder, who was already working with chitin. Rolandi later convinced him to do research at UC Santa Cruz.
“Directly outside of my lab was the collection point of all the styrofoam for the campus,” said Felts. “It was piled up, overflowing, falling on the ground and breaking apart. On tough days, walking back to the lab, seeing it would solidify why I was there doing this, just knowing that there’s millions of other places where this exact same thing was happening.”
Rolandi and Felts started Cruz Foam to make eco-friendly surfboards, but after trial and error, when they didn’t see a real need for it, they realized their research was meant for something bigger, packaging, and the chitin foam they designed could be used to put an end to the crumbling, ever-growing mountains of styrofoam and plastic accumulating on the land in the oceans.
“Everything is connected in a way that is really hard to see unless you get the whole perspective,” said Felts. “When you look at supply chains or materials in general, historically, that perspective has been very challenging to see with clarity for a lot of consumers because they only see the end of life.”
Knowing that the inevitable trajectory for most packaging materials is in the soil and the sea, Felts and the crew at Cruz Foam make products that are recyclable, water-soluble and even help plants grow, which was shown in a recent peer-reviewed white paper.
With celebrity investors backing the company such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Ashton Kutcher, and prominent local advisers like former Santa Cruz Mayor Hilary Bryant, Cruz Foam has a strong foundation of support and is already on track to scaling up nationally and globally in the coming years because as Felts points out, people are becoming more interested in the ultimate fate of product packaging.
“The consumer experience is having such a higher impact on brands and how they package their products,” said Felts. “We’re talking to some of the biggest ones right now and for them it’s the same idea. There’s so much more connection to the consumer than there ever was before and that’s why this is such an interesting time to be launching these products with companies like Verve and Real Good Fish.”