Seaweed as a Packaging Input

Seaweed as a Packaging Input

Why We Love It

by Saloni Doshi  & Jessica Dowding • published November 1, 2023

Biobased packaging is everywhere, and EcoEnclose has been purposefully cautious thus far.
After careful research, we see seaweed as a packaging input with incredible short and long-term potential, and we are excited to help build a future in which this restorative crop becomes commonplace in the world of packaging.
We are particularly thrilled to be partnering with Sway on this journey. Sway’s holistic, authentic commitment to pursuing truly sustainable packaging aligns with our vision, and we’re excited to bring product lines made with Sway’s seaweed-based flexible films to our community of EcoAllies.
In this article, we share our research on seaweed and why we believe it has such strong potential to be a game-changing input for packaging. We also share the pitfalls we recognize and want to avoid. Finally, we share more information about Sway and the depth of their commitment to sustainability, transparency, and ensuring their seaweed packaging benefits the planet and global communities as much as possible.

Why we're excited to partner with Sway on seaweed packaging

The biobased packaging industry is booming, with alternatives popping up in everything from disposable utensils to single-use bags to industrial films.

EcoEnclose has been deliberately cautious about the growing bioplastic trend thus far, and we continue to be skeptical about many biobased alternatives touted as renewable silver linings. This is because the vast majority of biobased plastic alternatives come with major concerns, including:

  • Massive freshwater requirements

  • Chemical-intensive crop production and the resulting nitrogen and phosphorus runoff

  • Deforestation and biodiversity loss that comes from logging or land use conversion

  • Fossil fuel inputs in many mixed bioplastics

  • Compostability issues such as contamination, improper breakdown, or degradation of compost quality

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At scale, many of the biobased inputs we’ve researched - corn, potatoes, trees, and wood chips, to name a few - can wreak havoc on the environment and the compost they end up in. Additionally, many EcoAllies recognize that EcoEnclose has typically prioritized recyclability over compostability for much of the packaging we focus on (which is generally clean and free of residue) as an optimal path to circularity.

That said, we have also been vocal in our belief that our vision for circularity will only be achieved if the virgin inputs entering the packaging materials stream are produced in restorative ways for the planet. We fully recognize that the world’s current reality - with most packaging inputs coming from a few sources such as fossil fuels, bauxite, sand, and trees - must change.

We’ve been searching for biobased inputs for packaging that will help achieve this long-term vision to help drive market adoption of bio-inputs that truly are a step forward in terms of benefitting the planet.

Summary and Key Insights

Current research shows that seaweed has strong potential to be the crop we need as a packaging input - one that can become regenerative and restorative rather than negative or even simply neutral.

Much mainstream dialogue about packaging focuses on end of life: is the item recyclable, compostable, naturally biodegradable, etc? EcoEnclose has consistently recognized that while the end of life is essential, the earlier stages of a packaging material’s life cycle have a far more significant environmental impact. This includes the production and extraction of the raw inputs, manufacturing those inputs into packaging materials, converting that material into packaging, and the logistics involved in transportation and storage at every step in the supply chain.

Seaweed has tremendous advantages, particularly in producing and extracting raw inputs, especially when compared to other common packaging inputs, such as non-renewable resources, as well as intensive crops such as corn, sugarcane, and potatoes. Key advantages include:

Key Advantage 01:

Reduced water use

Seaweed does not require freshwater to grow, and well-managed processing systems can recycle water for more efficient use.

Key Advantage 02:

Less reliance on chemicals

Seaweed can be grown without pesticides and fertilizers. Some processing methods require solvents; others have largely eliminated chemical use.

Key Advantage 03:

Species diversity

There are thousands of seaweed species with valuable properties, and seaweed has not been genetically modified like crops such as corn.

Key Advantage 04:

Minimal reliance on arable land

Most bio-inputs require vast swaths of arable land for resource-intensive agriculture. Seaweed cultivation can happen almost entirely in the ocean.

Key Advantage 05:

Improved ocean health

Restoratively cultivated seaweed reverses acidification, strengthens biodiversity, cycles nutrients and has potential to reverse the effects of climate change.

Key Advantage 06:

Improved livelihoods

Most seaweed farms are heavily localized and support coastal communities, giving them a valuable alternative climate-impacted activities like fishing.

Key Advantage 07:

Positive end-of-life processes

Unlike most bioplastics, Sway’s home-compostable seaweed packaging enriches rather than contaminates soil and compost.

These advantages are significant and exciting.

However, it’s also essential to remember that, as with all promising new technologies and materials, seaweed packaging must be thoughtfully executed to ensure quality and sustainability.

EcoEnclose is excited to partner with Sway due to its commitment to both innovation and to doing things the right way. They are working to further restorative seaweed production methods, pay fairly across the supply chain, and invest in coastal communities where seaweed is produced.

It is important to note that Sway’s seaweed-based materials are designed for home compostability. Sway’s flagship product is undergoing rigorous TUV Home Compost certification, has proven to enhance the quality of compost (something that is not true for the vast majority of compostable packaging), and even verified that their flagship film is marine biodegradable through testing under the TOM FORD Plastic Innovation Prize, addressing a concern that drives many brands to look for biobased inputs in the first place.

While EcoEnclose generally prioritizes recyclability over compostability for most of our packaging, we have consistently recognized that the earlier stages of a material’s life cycle have a far more significant environmental impact than end of life. Given Sway’s holistic approach to seaweed feedstock sourcing and their material’s end-of-life compostability, we are eager to see their portfolio of materials become mainstream packaging options and are excited to drive the adoption of these materials across brands of all sizes.
Additionally, we see many applications in which properties such as compostability, water solubility, or natural biodegradability are critical. We are particularly excited to work with Sway to bring a trusted solution for these use cases.

Below, you’ll find an in-depth look at our findings about seaweed’s role as a bio-input and our analysis of and partnership with Sway. We look forward to our partnership with Sway, as well as feedback from our EcoAllies as we explore this new material. If you have any questions, please reach out to us.

How EcoEnclose Evaluates Bioplastics

We take the process of evaluating new materials very seriously. The last thing we want to do or lead our EcoAllies to do is adopt a new material only to discover it has a more harmful overall impact than whatever it is replacing. Because of this, we do extensive research and ask many questions before testing any new material. Here are the questions we dig into as part of this process.

Step 01:

Evaluate inputs

Common bio-replacements for traditional plastic include rice, corn, potatoes, sugar beets, wheat, and woodchips.

What is the feedstock, also known as source inputs, for this polymer?

  • Is it petroleum-based?
  • Is it based on other non-renewable sources? For example, sand is used for silicone.
  • If it is a renewable resource, is it one whose production or extraction is frequently degenerative? For example, massive monocrops like corn, wheat, or sugarcane or the logging primary forests for wood.
  • Could it be produced in a regenerative way? If so, how probable is this? For example, while sugarcane is often produced in highly degenerative ways, ROC (regenerative organic certified), sugarcane production has been shown to have tremendous positive consequences for land and biodiversity.
  • If it is renewable, what is the land impact of producing the crop?
    • Does it require the removal of critical ecosystems now or in the future?
    • Does it threaten old-growth or endangered forests?
    • Is it a monocrop?
    • Is it planted and grown in a regenerative growth cycle?
    • Does it need high levels of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides? Is GMO, which heightens chemical concerns, standard practice?
  • How much freshwater is required?

Once we’ve identified and assessed the inputs, we evaluate what would happen if these inputs were cultivated, harvested, processed, used, and disposed of at scale. Currently, around 80% of bio alternatives to plastic come from starches. While some are not “problematic” today because they are used at such low volumes, they would have problems if applied at scale.

How would the inputs and material affect the following if used at scale?

  • Land use
  • Conversion of natural land to agricultural land
  • Competition with food production
  • Water usage
  • Soil health
  • Chemical usage
  • Chemical runoff
  • Ocean pollution
  • Deforestation
  • Impact on communities
Step 02:

Evaluate production and manufacturing

Raw inputs must be processed into the final packaging product. We next look at the impact of this process on the planet.

How resource and chemical-intensive is it to turn the input into a packaging material?

  • Does it require a lot of fresh water?
  • Are many chemicals used in manufacturing?
  • Does the production process create harmful waste or high emissions?
  • Are there problematic health consequences for people in the manufacturing process?
Step 03:

Evaluate supply chain and power dynamics

In our global economy, no industries exist in a vacuum. We look at how the power is structured for this input and how the supply chain affects people and the planet.

Is power in the supply chain for this material consolidated in a problematic way?

  • For example, in the case of corn, companies like Monsanto and Cargill control the majority of production.

Is it produced or able to be produced in an ethical way that builds rather than harms communities?

  • Does it create valuable local jobs?
  • Can it help those otherwise reliant on less sustainable income sources such as fishing or logging?
  • Is it possible to monitor production to prevent issues such as forced labor and child labor?

Can it be produced or processed in various locations for global production?

  • Will companies in areas around the world be able to invest in this material to help grow the market?
Step 04:

Evaluate usability and applications

We look at how the material and product can be used, evaluating current and possible future uses. We also assess the material’s properties compared to the conventional materials it aims to replace.

What is the material functionally designed for, and what common materials could it replace? For example:

  • Thin film
  • Rigid containers such as aluminum, plastic, or glass jars
  • Agricultural applications, such as crop or soil covers

Does it behave in the same way as a traditional plastic, or are there functional drawbacks?

  • Does it have the same shelf life?
  • Does it provide a moisture barrier? How does it interact with water?
  • Does it provide grease resistance?
  • Does it offer benefits such as transparency, tensile strength, and flexibility?

What is the formulation of the material or polymer?

  • New? (A novel formulation not designed to match fossil-fuel-based polymer - such as PLA)
  • Drop-in? (Identical on a molecular level to fossil-fuel-based polymers - such as bio-PET)

What would make this a better option than recycled plastics?

  • Does it have a lower carbon footprint?
  • Is its functionality superior?
  • Is it more affordable - without sacrificing sustainability?
Step 05:

Evaluate end-of-life impact

We look at how the material and product can be used, evaluating current and possible future uses. We also assess the material’s properties compared to the conventional materials it aims to replace.
  • What is its intended end-of-life/waste stream defined by the manufacturer or distributor?
  • Compostability (home or industrial)
  • Recyclability
  • Landfill

How accessible to the average consumer is this intended end-of-life waste stream?

  • How will the packaging behave if it is sent to landfill rather than recycled or composted?
  • Packaging must be designed for the reality to make an impact.

Does this waste stream have the capacity to accept and treat this material at mainstream/high volumes?

  • Does the relevant waste industry want this material?
  • Does the technology to effectively treat this material exist on a widespread level?
    • For example, filtration to capture microplastics or vinyl acetate in wastewater

Does the material potentially create marine pollution or disintegrate into microplastics?

  • For example, petroleum-based thin films with additives break down more quickly than traditional plastics but still break down into harmful microplastics.

Is this material circular/closed loop by nature or linear by nature?

  • Can it be recycled into itself?

Note that materials are often technically capable of being recycled back into themselves but can’t be recycled given their current volumes and infrastructure. Our current recycling system requires a high enough volume of a specific material to exist nationwide for a sorting and recycling supply chain to be developed. As an example, PLA technically could be recycled; however, PLA as a mono-material is still relatively uncommon - there is not enough of the material in circulation to make it economically viable for MRFs to invest in accepting and sorting the material or reclaimers to acquire the equipment required to remanufacture it.

For bio-based materials whose optimal end of life today is compostability:

  • Is it home compostable, industrially compostable, or both?
  • Is it tested and certified? Is it tested and certified in a lab, real-life settings, or both?
  • What impact does it have on the resulting soil? For example, does it add nutrients, or does it degrade soil health?
  • If the material is designed for industrial compostability, what percentage of industrial composters accept the material?

For bioplastics that claim biodegradability:

  • Is the material compostable? Biodegradable and compostable aren’t the same thing.
  • Is the material designed to naturally biodegrade in any environment?
  • How long does it take to break down if left as litter?
  • What does it leave behind in a natural environment? For example, microplastics or toxins.
  • How does it interact with plant and animal life?

What is the long-term feasibility of end-of-life concerns at scale?

  • Could this material feasibly be recycled back into itself if it becomes mainstream?

This maximizes the carbon sequestering benefits - sequestering carbon from the atmosphere or ocean into healthy soil is still beneficial. Some materials, even compostable, can be recycled, but it only makes sense to create infrastructure if the volumes are large enough to be worth the investment.

Step 06:

Bring it all together

We aren’t expecting perfection from any material! We review inputs based on the above questions and factors and then take a step back and ask ourselves: Does this new input or material bring the world closer to our vision of circularity and regenerative inputs? Does the material represent a significant leap forward such that the investment in its R&D and market adoption is worthwhile for the planet?

Typically, when we find a material that checks most of the following boxes, we get excited about moving it forward:

  • It is sourced from renewable resources whose production has the strong potential to be restorative to ecosystems.

  • It can be harvested without endangering important ecosystems or placing pressure on these environments.

  • It has a real path towards carbon neutrality or carbon sequestration. At a minimum, it does not create a higher carbon footprint than recycled plastic.

  • It meets the needs of the packaging it is replacing and has a fairly broad range of potential uses and functions.

  • It can be closed-loop by design.

  • It does not create toxins or environmental degradation, such as in water or soil.

Our Findings

Explore our analysis of the environmental impact of seaweed compared to other bioplastic inputs.
comparison of feedstocks for packaging chart

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Our Analysis: Seaweed’s Potential as a Bioplastic Input

What is seaweed?

Seaweed is a type of marine algae encompassing thousands of species that share two distinct characteristics: they are macroscopic (can be seen without a microscope) and exist in marine environments. They are distinct from other tiny algae, such as chlorella.

Seaweed is classified by color: red, green, and brown. Seaweed doesn’t have typical roots, stems, or leaves. Instead, it’s typically made of a blade and “holdfasts” that anchor it to its growing location. This means that the bulk of the plant can often be used without creating large quantities of agricultural waste, such as in corn or wheat cultivation.

While hundreds of seaweed species have commercial value, only a fraction are currently farmed.

Farmed seaweed has gained more attention recently because of its unique potential across industries, including:

  • Culinary: Seaweed has long been a popular food in many countries, and its high protein and nutrient content make it a promising addition to global diets.

  • Pharmaceutical: Because it contains bioactive compounds like antioxidants, antivirals, and more, seaweed can be used in medicines or other medical applications.

  • Fuel: Seaweed’s rapid growth rate and high water content are well-suited to creating biofuels like ethanol.

  • Animal Feed: Seaweed can provide protein, calcium, and fiber in animal or fish feed, so it’s a growing ingredient in livestock and pet feed. Some scientists have also begun experimenting with seaweed to reduce methane emissions in cattle.

  • Building Materials: Countries like Denmark have historically used seaweed as insulation, and more architects and scientists are exploring its potential in buildings.

  • Chemicals: Compounds such as agar and carrageenan can be extracted from seaweed.

  • Packaging: Seaweed’s gelling properties and carbohydrate content make it possible to turn it into various types of packaging that are an alternative to conventional petroleum-based plastic. For obvious reasons, this is the use we are most excited about!

How is seaweed cultivated?

Ocean Farming involves growing seaweed directly in the ocean. This can be done on lines, pillar-type rafts, floating rafts, or other growing equipment. Most current seaweed farming operations are close to shore at depths of 5-50 meters, but some farms are exploring cultivation in deeper waters.
  • Advantages: Scalable, resource-efficient, avoids the need for land or fresh water use, can be implemented on coastlines worldwide, creates a marine resource for communities to rely on besides fishing.

  • Disadvantages: Some areas, like California, have strict permit requirements that can create a barrier to entry for small-scale operations. Ocean farming can also create issues like seabed shading, disruption of seabed habitats, and wildlife entanglement. These risks are uncommon, and can be avoided by careful assessment, planning, and monitoring.

Ocean farming is our generally preferred method, and the one Sway adheres to in their sourcing strategy!

Land Farming typically uses closed systems like water tanks or ponds. While useful in small-scale or scientific applications, this type of cultivation has serious drawbacks if applied at scale.

  • Advantages: Simplicity, easy monitoring, standardization.

  • Disadvantages: Use of scarce land and water resources, energy intensive, costly to implement at scale.

Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture (IMTA) systems are designed to increase the sustainability of intensive aquaculture systems using an ecosystem-based approach. In these systems, the seaweed absorbs waste like nitrogen and phosphorus from aquatic animals. Combining seaweed cultivation with traditional fish and shellfish production can represent an ecologically sound and economically attractive solution for farmers.

  • Advantages: Potential to reduce marine eutrophication, increased yield of seaweed and aquatic animal products.

  • Disadvantages: Current systems are often costly, inefficient, and difficult to scale.

Environmental impact of seaweed cultivation

Seaweed cultivation is resource-efficient compared to resource-intensive crops such as corn and potatoes. Seaweed can grow entirely underwater, so it can be cultivated without clearing land. Seaweed also grows rapidly, up to 30 times faster than land-based crops such as corn or sugarcane. Most of the seaweeds used for polymer extraction reproduce asexually - if a small piece of seaweed is saved after harvesting, it will regrow into a new plant. This allows farmers to harvest crops more quickly and easily than growing plants from seed.

Another benefit of seaweed cultivation over traditional crops is that seaweed doesn’t require fertilizers, helping prevent pollution and reduce reliance on fossil fuels. In fact, across all of the key areas we assess materials - seaweed has either no or low harmful impacts. These areas include:

  • Deforestation risk
  • Conversion of natural land to agricultural
  • Biodiversity loss risk
  • Chemical and fertilizer needs
  • Soil health and retention
  • Freshwater use
  • Land erosion risk
  • Reliance on monocrop agriculture or GMOs

Not only are the negative consequences of its cultivation very low, but seaweed is particularly exciting because of its potential to be a restorative crop - providing net benefits to the planet.

When cultivated thoughtfully, often alongside the cultivation of shellfish as part of a restorative aquaculture operation, seaweed can:

  • Provide habitat, shelter, and food for aquatic animals

  • Mitigate ocean eutrophication by absorbing excess nutrients

  • Offer a climate-resistant natural resource through cultivating temperature- and disease-resistant species

  • Enhance nutrients in soil where composted, according to early trials

  • Support coastal communities through added jobs and alternatives to overfishing

  • Avoid harmful monocultures by integrating diverse seaweed species and pulling starts from native varieties

  • Absorb and sequester carbon, as new science is starting to share!

Research conducted by The Nature Conservancy scientists and partners “demonstrates that aquaculture can help restore ocean health, as well as support economic development and food production in coastal communities worldwide—if the right practices are deployed in the right places.”

the nature conservancy shellfish and seaweed farming graphic

But the importance of the qualifier “if” cannot be understated: “if the right practices are deployed in the right places.”

Seaweed farming in itself is not always restorative, and increasing farming in the sea can certainly be a risky proposition. We’ve been harming lands for decades with industrial agriculture, and - if a push for aquaculture were driven entirely by maximizing yield at minimal costs - we’d do the same thing to our oceans. The Sierra Club offers important perspectives on this challenge in their piece, The Promise and the Challenge of “Restorative Aquaculture.

Many NGOs and government agencies are collaborating to position aquaculture to scale globally in restorative ways. The Nature Conservancy has defined the concept of restorative as; “when commercial or subsistence aquaculture provides direct ecological benefits to the environment, with the potential to generate net positive environmental outcomes” - with a visual that illustrates a range of acceptable practices - from minimizing negative consequences to accruing long-term environmental benefits.

society for conservation biology infographic

TNC put forth the following six principles of restorative aquaculture to help drive a future with a much lower reliance on intensive land crops and an increased capacity for sustainably sourced resources derived from the ocean.

  1. Farms are sited where environmental outcomes are needed

  2. Species are cultured that can provide the ecological outcomes intended

  3. Farming equipment that enhances the delivery of environmental benefits is prioritized

  4. Management practices that align with or improve local ecological processes are adopted

  5. The intensity and scale of culture work to enhance the ecosystem

  6. The socioeconomic value of the environmental benefits provided is recognized

Learn more: The Nature Conservancy - Global Principles of Restorative Aquaculture, Nov 2021

Extracting, processing, and manufacturing

Extracting and processing seaweed requires:

  • Water: Used to wash and process seaweed. Through careful management, water can be recycled through the system to minimize freshwater use. The footprint of energy use can also be reduced by choosing clean energy sources over carbon-heavy sources such as coal.

  • Energy: Used to power machinery.

  • Solvents: Used to break down seaweed in some extraction methods. While solvents are used in some processing methods, they aren’t required. As the world of seaweed-based packaging expands, finding the most efficient, environmentally friendly processing methods will be critical to sustainable scaling.

The common process of extracting agar involves:

  • Washing and cleaning seaweed
  • Treating with alkali
  • Freezing and thawing to remove water
  • Drying the remaining matter
  • Milling dried seaweed into agar powder

Other promising methods have been able to eliminate organic solvents, lower the temperature used, increase the yield of hydrocolloids (i.e. agar, carrageenan, and alginates), and shorten extraction time. A combination of these processes can also yield better extract than conventional methods. Alternative methods include:

  • Microwave-assisted extraction (MAE)
  • Ultrasound-assisted extraction (UAE)
  • Supercritical fluid extraction (SFE)
  • Pressurized solvent extraction (PSE)
  • Reactive extrusion

The Sway material used in our retail box windows is created from a combination of seaweed polymers and renewable starches and sugars, which are blended into a slurry, cast into sheets of film, dried, and rolled. EcoEnclose converts the rolls of film into product windows in our retail boxes, which are then shared with customers like you!

Supply Chain Dynamics

While seaweed has remarkable potential for regeneration, it is essential to source the material thoughtfully to avoid potentially problematic supply chain dynamics. Below, we share common seaweed supply chain insights and how innovators like Sway imagine what ethical and sustainable sourcing can look like in the seaweed industry.

Currently, the overwhelming majority of seaweed cultivation happens in Asia. The top cultivators are China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and the Republic of Korea. However, seaweed is being grown and farmed on nearly every coastline, with promising industry growth occurring in regions like Chile, India, Madagascar, and the US East Coast.

ffpn global seaweed farming and processing in the past 20 years map

Seaweed operations range from small local farms to large-scale aquaculture. Many are focused on seaweed for food production. While they aren’t necessarily relevant for seaweed packaging applications, we believe it is important to understand - and share - the broader landscape around seaweed production.

One leading player in the broader seaweed landscape is Cargill, a prominent global food and bioindustrial ingredients company that offers a range of seaweed-based products. Several other major seaweed companies in the industry include:

  • DuPont: Headquartered in Wilmington, Delaware, United States.
  • Roullier: Headquartered in Saint-Malo, France.
  • Seasol International: Based in Australia, with its headquarters in Melbourne.
  • CP Kelco: Headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, United States.
  • Gelymar SA: Headquartered in Santiago, Chile.
  • Qingdao Gather Great Ocean Algae: Headquartered in Qingdao, China.
  • Acadian Seaplants Limited: Headquartered in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Despite the presence of some industry giants, the seaweed economy is much less centralized than crops like corn or wheat, meaning there’s a huge opportunity to scale it responsibly with research, community, and policy. Most existing centralization happens in the processing and manufacturing phases, not the cultivation ones.

Since cultivation is generally highly localized, many operations support individual communities, creating jobs, increasing economic growth, and giving coastal residents a strong income opportunity. This can be especially beneficial for communities whose reliance on fishing has become challenging due to overfishing or the effects of climate change.

One potential downside of the localized nature of the industry is that it makes monitoring farming and labor practices more difficult. For example, over 50% of cultivation happens in China, where transparency is largely absent.

Since seaweed can be grown in coastal environments worldwide, cultivation in the US and other areas with stricter regulations is increasing - and will likely continue to grow.

With seaweed’s recent influx of attention as a viable input for biofuels, biofertilizers, biomaterials, and more, we conclude that special attention will need to be focused in the following areas to promote successful, responsible supply chain growth of this promising ocean crop:

  • Build relationships with trusted partners
  • Ensure regular monitoring happens
  • Actively source from restorative farms if not growing seaweed directly
  • Pursue certification as it becomes applicable
  • Evaluate and reevaluate the farm’s impact on the local environment

As discussed in more detail below, EcoEnclose is excited to partner with Sway because of their commitment to holistic seaweed sourcing, prioritizing impact, biodiversity, and uplifting coastal communities. Sway sources a diverse set of seaweed species from a global network of ocean farms using a supplier scorecard system that ensures transparency and high standards across cultivation and processing. They actively source from restorative farms and work with many nonprofit organizations to help monitor, inform, and support widespread responsible seaweed production.

Usability and Applications

Seaweed-based films and plastic-replacements have potential in many use cases, including thin films and consumer packaged goods.

As with traditional petroleum-based plastics, seaweed-based packaging isn’t one single thing. Depending on a variety of considerations (other inputs added, process used to manufacture seaweed), the resulting material can be different - with each having unique properties. We believe seaweed-derived packaging can replace various solutions - thin film, laminations, coatings, thermoformed materials, and even rigid materials over time.

That said, regardless of its ultimate packaging form, seaweed is still a relatively new material in sustainable packaging. As with all emerging technologies, materials made with seaweed haven’t yet undergone the vetting, testing, and iterating process that conventional plastics have benefitted from, with decades of research and development, investments, and market testing. Additionally, these emerging materials generally have to be developed to work effectively on equipment created for traditional plastics. This is generally not true in the earlier stages of R&D for any material. This means converted packaging (again, early in the development process) is unlikely to work as perfectly as the plastic formulations they are replacing.

This reality doesn’t mean brands shouldn’t leverage seaweed in their packaging strategy. It means just the opposite. We strongly encourage brands to incorporate seaweed and other innovative materials into their packaging.

Why? This market adoption is needed to accelerate the testing, iteration, and capital investments required to get these emerging materials to become competitive and viable replacements for mainstream options.

We’ll work with brands to evaluate properties such as:

  • Moisture resistance
  • Grease resistance
  • Puncture resistance
  • Tear strength
  • Adhesion strength
  • Barrier properties

And we’ll help ensure that the use cases you’re leveraging seaweed-derived packaging align with your needs. Additionally, we recommend starting small. Adopt these emerging materials in limited quantities to start and - after a successful run - go bigger the second time.


Currently, seaweed-derived films, and other biobased plastic alternatives are typically designed for compostability. Depending on how the film is produced, it may also be water soluble, marine biodegradable, and/or able to naturally biodegrade if left as litter. The end-of-life outcomes depend on the specific composition of the packaging (i.e., what inputs besides seaweed, if any, have been added) and how it is manufactured.

Home compostability is Sway’s product portfolio mandate. In the case of our retail box collaboration, Sway’s seaweed-based product window can be removed from the recyclable box and composted either in home or industrial compost. However, our retail box collaboration is also curbside recyclable – the seaweed-based window will be screened out during the repulping process. As with all windows, staples, labels, and other common additions to paper packaging, non-paper components are screened out during the paper repulping process and landfilled.

EcoEnclose generally emphasizes and prefers recycling over composting for end-of-life for a clean, non-food package. For certain applications, like packaging that will have food residue or that has a high chance of becoming litter (e.g., candy wrappers), seaweed packaging can actually provide a safer alternative to conventional virgin plastic film.

It is important to note that emerging materials - even when they might be technically recyclable - are never realistically recyclable due to insufficient quantities and challenges in sorting and processing. In today's recycling infrastructure, the only bio-derived plastics that are recyclable are those that are designed to (chemically) look exactly like fossil fuel-based plastics. For example, PET derived from sugarcane has the same polymer structure as PET and can, therefore, be effectively recycled with soda bottles.

In the future, recycling for emerging materials (including seaweed-derived packaging) may become available if packaging volumes and material demand grow enough to make it worth investing in infrastructure.

That said, EcoEnclose considers the entire product life cycle, not only the end of life. End-of-life is often the most visible impact on the packaging consumer. But in reality, the inputs and manufacturing often comprise the largest part of packaging’s footprint. Because of this, we believe that focusing only on end-of-life concerns can lead to short-sighted decisions with a net negative impact.

As the above research shows, seaweed has tremendous potential to be a carbon-sequestering and restorative crop - significantly better than fossil fuels and other resource-intensive crops that can be put into plastic. We are investing in seaweed - and specifically in Sway - because we believe that the world needs these materials commercialized. That way, we can diversify the inputs that go into our flexible and rigid packaging to create a more sustainable packaging future.

Why Sway x EcoEnclose?

We’ve been connected with Sway and following their remarkable progress for some time, and we are thrilled to partner with them - first on a retail box window and, over time, on many additional applications.

In our dialogues with Sway, it has become clear that this company is truly dedicated to regeneration in everything they do. They are founded with a mission to extend the inherent generosity of the ocean by pairing the beneficial qualities of seaweed with advanced materials science. They are designing next-generation replacements for plastic that replenish seas, soils, and coastal communities.

The films they are developing are the real deal: Certified 100% Biobased, home compostable, and scalable. And they recognize that scaling seaweed production must be done holistically to prioritize this feedstock’s social and ecological potential. They actively partner with academic, research, and nonprofit organizations to ensure their success is interlinked with thriving communities and ocean health. Their partners include Lonely Whale, Environmental Defense Fund, 5 Gyres, Reef Check Worldwide, Oceans 2050, and Sustainable Ocean Alliance, among others.

Here are highlights of why we're so enthusiastic about this new partnership:

1. Commitment to Sustainable Practices
Sway is dedicated to doing things right in eco-friendly packaging without cutting corners or glossing over concerns.
2. High Percentage of Seaweed Content
Sway's flagship film, used as windows in our products, comprises an impressive 70-80% seaweed.
3. Responsible Sourcing of Biobased Inputs
The biobased inputs Sway uses, such as commercially available sugars and starches in addition to seaweed, are sourced responsibly.
4. Biobased Certification
Sway's film is Certified 100% Biobased.
5. Diversification of Seaweed Sources
Sway has made it a priority to diversify their seaweed sources to avoid monocultures or overfarming, and working with farmers from various countries - including the United States.
6. Diversification of Seaweed Varieties
The variety of seaweed Sway sources is crucial for the continued prosperity and restoration of seaweed ecosystems.
7. Innovative Use of Sargassum
Sway has an opportunity to utilize “invasive” species such as sargassum, which is especially beneficial in areas like the Caribbean where sargassum is causing issues.
8. Beneficial to Composting Streams
Studies have shown that Sway's flagship film enriches composts with nutrients, a unique trait not found in most compostable or synthetic materials.
9. Support for Regenerative Farming
While supply volumes are a primary priority, Sway also actively purchases from regenerative farms and plans to further support and promote regenerative seaweed farming as they grow.
10. Community and Environmental Support
Sway actively supports local coastal economies and engages in initiatives to benefit the environment.
11. Conducting Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs)
Sway actively conducts LCAs to gather accurate information and research data. They put tremendous emphasis on research, both to continuously improve their environmental impact and to ensure that the information they are sharing is verified.
12. Collaborations and Partnerships
Sway collaborates with research partners such as Oceans 2050 and WWF to scale seaweed commercial best practices and promote sustainability.

Sway's dedication to creating the most sustainable product makes them an ideal partner for EcoEnclose. We look forward to working with them to bring you the best suite of environmentally friendly packaging as we strive toward a more sustainable packaging industry.

Seaweed Applications | Current and Future

EcoEnclose is excited to play a role in bringing seaweed-based packaging solutions to our forward-thinking EcoAlly community.

Seaweed retail box windows are the first of many products that will be launched by Sway + EcoEnclose. We started here because all windows in paper packaging are screened out and landfilled during the recycling and repulping process. Shop our retail boxes with seaweed windows - available in gable top display boxes and candle boxes.

Because of seaweed packaging’s most likely current end-of-life scenarios, we get particularly excited about applications where recycling is infeasible or compostability or biodegradability are vital, such as flexible packaging with food residue or packaging with a high chance of leaking into natural spaces.

We’re also enthusiastic about seaweed’s potential as a replacement for PFAS and other paper coatings. Seaweed and seaweed byproducts can also be an excellent input for next-gen paper, providing a fast-growing alternative to trees. Finally, we’re excited about leveraging seaweed films as a replacement in applications where the material will most likely be landfilled anyway.

retail box with seaweed window for candle

sway packaging for apparel