Israeli foodtech start-up W-Cycle is concerned about plastic pollution, with an estimated 8m tonnes entering the marine environment every year.
At the same time, food waste is a growing concern. Upcycling food chain by-products, such as discarded seed husks and crop pulp, presents an opportunity for industry – and one that Israeli start-up W-Cycle is seizing with both hands.
The foodtech business has developed plastic-free packaging made from upcycled sugarcane waste, which W-Cycle co-founder and CTO Joseph Siani said will help consumers ‘ditch plastic containers’ and ‘create a cleaner environment’.
Upcycling sugarcane waste
The key to W-Cycle’s innovation comes from the sugarcane industry. The crop is predominantly grown in tropical countries as both a food and fuel source.
According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), sugarcane supplies 86% of the world’s sugar – with the remaining 14% coming from beet – and is a key biofuel feedstock, as sugarcane is ‘highly efficient’ in converting sunlight into energy.
In 2017, the largest can sugar exporting countries were Brazil ($11.4bn), Thailand ($2.6bn), and France ($1.4bn).
W-Cycle is particularly interested in the dry, pulpy, and fibrous residue that remains after sugarcane or sorghum (a cereal used for food, fodder, and in the production of alcoholic beverages) stalks are crushed to extract their juice. This reside is known as ‘bagasse’.
“Sugarcane bagasse is an abundant by-product of the sugar industry,” Siani explained. “Currently, most of it ends up in landfill or is burned. The ratio of extracting cellulose from sugarcane waste is 45% (eg. 450kg can be extracted our of one ton of waste).”
While the CTO told FoodNavigator W-Cycle could in fact use any other feedstock, such as reed, wood, or banana leaves, as ‘any fibre can form the shape of the product and provide its mechanical properties’, the start-up is sourcing sugarcane waste from a manufacturer in Asia Pacific.
The manufacturer delivers the waste to a sustainable packaging plant, the CTO continued, which ships the product directly to consumers. “We maintain full control of the supply chain. This puts the total transportation, and its impact on the environment, at the minimum possible level,” he added.
What is SupraPulp?
W-Cycle has named its patented, plastic-free packaging made from 100% bagasse, ‘SupraPulp’. Marketed as a replacement for plastic, aluminium, or foam containers, SupraPulp has ‘unique characteristics’ compared to standard bagasse containers that make them suitable for fresh, frozen, or prepared consumer packaged meals.
“While standard pulp products cannot sustain liquids and oils, SupraPulp containers are oil- and water-resistant and avoid any absorption or leakage,” noted W-Cycle.
“CPET plastic trays are typically used for ready meal packaging. SupraPulp, just like CPET, is ideal for ready meals since it is suitable for freezer-to-oven/microwave convenience. Fresh meat, poultry and seafood are also commonly packed in plastic due to their juice runoff. SupraPulp is a great replacement as it will not leak or soften.”
Further, the SupraPulp material can be frozen to -40°C and reheated to 270°C.
Of course, there were challenges in getting SupraPulp to where it is today. The main challenge, Siani recalled, was in getting the material (paper), which naturally absorbs water and burns easily, to react ‘very differently’ and ‘suit the food packaging industry’. “This different reaction is what we were so proud to develop and was the basis for our patent,” he revealed.
Concerning price point, SupraPro is ‘similar in price’, or ‘even cheaper’ than CPET plastic, and certainly from rPET, we were told. While low performing plastics can be cheaper, they cannot handle hot food, or may ‘turn brittle’ in the freezer.
Meeting consumer demand for sustainability
“Dispose SupraPulp packages the same way you would your salad,” said W-Cycle CEO and co-founder Liot Itai. “This food-grade, compostable packaging is a one-to-one replacement for its plastic counterpart.”
Indeed, Suprapulp is industrial and seed compostable. W-Cycle has submitted an application to be recognised as ‘home compostable’, and CTO Siani said he expects approval to come through ‘in a few months’.
Being plastic-free and compostable, Siani said the product will meet growing consumer demand for sustainability. “COVID-10 is drawing consumers’ attention to how we treat our planet and the future of the environment. There is greater demand – and pressure – on brands to offer environmentally responsible products.
“Providing a compostable solution for ready meals and meat products allows us to help food manufacturers as well as consumers ditch plastic containers and create a cleaner environment,” he said, adding that so far, ‘demand is outstanding’.
W-Cycle has already started working with companies around the world, including in Australia, New Zealand, France, Chile, Brazil, Japan, and the UK.
“We predict better success in regions where government regulation is pushing for change and where consumer opinion demands more sustainable solutions,” the CTO added.