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Net-zero innovations: making plastic out of peas

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 07 Dec 2021

Xampla is the result of 15 years of research at the University of Cambridge – a plant-based ‘plastic’ with wide-ranging implications.

Dishwasher tablet wrappers, plastic films, fruit labels, and sauce sachets – just some examples of single-use plastics which last for centuries. But, says Stanley Mitchell, business development manager at Xampla, why do they need to? 

Xampla, the company behind the world's first plant protein material for commercial use, provides a genuine environmentally sustainable alternative to single-use plastics. "For products which are used for just a few seconds, there is just no need for them to be made from materials which last for hundreds of years," says Mitchell. "This concept is fundamental to what we provide at Xampla. Our material is a natural, plant-based alternative to plastic which can offer the same high performance needed for specific applications without having to rely on fossil fuels or polluting marine life."

Supposedly 'invisible' microbeads and microplastics found in fabric softeners or dishwasher tablets also cause serious environmental issues. 

Fabric softeners add 'long-lasting freshness' to clothing. The liquid is made up of microscopic plastic beads, each containing a droplet of fragrance oil. These beads stick to clothing and are broken down through friction and movement, releasing low-level fragrance creating the illusion of freshness. 

Such microbeads may be invisible to the naked eye, but they are still very much there. Even with so-called soluble polymers found in dishwasher tablets, large amounts still find their way into the marine environment. 

All this is what Xampla is attempting to address with its revolutionary plant-based proteins. 

Based on 15 years of research at the University of Cambridge and financed at seed stage by Amadeus Capital Partners, the Xampla product is an entirely vegan, plant-based high-performance film base which offers the same high performance as a chemical polymer.

"The pea protein isolate used by Xampla is insoluble, which has traditionally made it hard to manipulate," Mitchell explains. "But our research demonstrated how you could create a technique to unfold the molecular structure and then refold it into a functional form. This can be done very cheaply and with very low energy."

Unlike chemical polymers, which are made into what consumers recognise as plastics, the transformational process involving pea proteins creates very few waste products. There is no chemical alteration of the plant protein, and it is entirely natural. 

"It's primarily about controlling the pressure and temperatures during mixing. What you end up with is the end material which is not chemically changed at all. You're just changing the shape of the pea protein at a microscopic scale."

This could make significant inroads towards creating a net-zero economy, removing vast swathes of plastic from everyday products. "The critical thing to recognise is that with any material that has a complex, multi-stage production process, you'll have a larger resulting carbon footprint," says Mitchell. "Ours doesn't – the process is very streamlined and takes advantage of the natural properties of the protein to create the end materials with very impressive performance characteristics; without going through an energy-intensive treatment process, or wasteful conversion steps." 

One of Xampla's most significant challenges is sharing that message. How do you communicate the genuinely sustainable nature of the plant-protein plastic alternative to the average consumer or business when greenwashing is already a major problem? In a world where the word 'biodegradable' is often bandied around, it's a considerable hurdle to overcome. 

Xampla's products are primarily targeted towards existing players in the materials supply chain, such as plastics converters who chemically transform raw materials into new products. They also have many B2C clients who need support in communicating the pea protein breakthrough to consumers.

"There are a lot of products that engage in greenwashing in terms of materials used, or they simply obfuscate about the actual biodegradability of their products," says Mitchell. "The term 'biodegradable' is often used inappropriately or incorrectly, so it's created confusion in consumers' minds. The average consumer wants to make more sustainable choices, so the challenge is to help them make that distinction between genuine biodegradable plant-based products and products which are being marketed as such."

Yet as Mitchell points out, consumers still 'love' the experience of a dishwasher tablet contained in shrink wrapping that seems to disappear. One of Xampla's core principles is to help partners create solutions that meet consumer demand, rather than trying to go against it.

Xampla's solution is already used for dissolvable packaging for food and drink products, in partnership with meal kit brand Gousto. 

"If you're packaging something you're just going to eat, why not use a food ingredient to play the role of packaging? It's a much more efficient process rather than wrapping it inside another piece of packaging that ends up lasting for hundreds of years."

Mitchell explains that any 'just add water' food item will work with these new products, such as stock cubes, pot noodles or protein drinks. 

"Ultimately, we have to bump plastic out of all these spaces: household items, food items, cosmetics and more," says Mitchell. "The really great thing is there's room for lots of players in this market. For Xampla, we can have a gigantic impact on functional films and speciality plastic polymers which is an area that has traditionally been ignored either because it's unseen or difficult to replace. Our solutions show you don't have to use single-use plastic to enable these applications, and I think that's a really great thing for Xampla to be doing."

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