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How Sway’s Seaweed Material May Replace Single-Use Plastic and Lead a Design Revolution

by Theresa Christine Johnson on 03/29/2021 | 4 Minute Read

“I grew up both in the woods and by the ocean shore,” Julia Marsh said of her childhood home in Carmel, California. “It’s this special place where the forest meets the sea, and I had this really deep love for ocean and forest ecosystems. I was taught to respect nature from a really young age.”

When Julia became a designer and started developing brand and packaging systems, that reverence for Mother Earth felt at odds with her career. She hated being forced to rely on single-use plastic packaging, so she decided to look for an alternative material. After exploring reusable, non-packaging, and compostable options, Julia discovered she only had to turn to the sea.

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“When I was earning my MFA in New York, I used my graduate thesis to explore a solution to plastics,” Julia said. “I looked at mycelium, Scobey, agricultural waste, and microalgae—and then seaweed.”

Other plastic alternatives fail to catch on for various reasons. Cost is a big one since no one will want to switch to anything more costly than the ever-affordable plastic. For manufacturers, a material that requires entirely new machinery or systems is a huge undertaking. And aside from that, whatever gets used has to be durable and look good. Nothing quite ticks all the boxes, so brands continue to use plastic despite the fact that our planet is swimming in it.

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Julia found that seaweed, however, makes an excellent plastic substitute. She spoke with agriculturists, visited seaweed farms in Indonesia and down into South America, researching the kind of regenerative ocean farming and environmental impact seaweed can have. Her findings? Where producing plastic causes harm in every part of the process (from manufacturing to long after its use), seaweed only uplifts and regenerates natural and human-built systems at every step.

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As a result, seaweed became her inspiration to start Sway, a materials lab looking to end the single-use plastic epidemic. “I love the poetry of taking a material that comes from the ocean to help solve an issue that so drastically affects it,” said Julia. “Rather than looking at the ocean as an at-risk system or as the victim in this scenario, we can twist that around and look at the ocean as the source of the solution.”

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Seaweed is an abundant species on every coastline in the world and rapidly grows. It doesn’t require fresh water, fertilizers, or heaps of manual labor either—just a little bit of ocean water. What’s more, is seaweed combats ocean acidification (a sign of climate change), encourages biodiversity, and harvesting it doesn’t require you to remove the entire crop; instead, you’re essentially cutting the grass. Local communities benefit, too, from seaweed farms since they provide employment opportunities to coastal communities that have been hit hard by climate change and overfishing. And when all is said and done, material developed from this ocean super-algae will naturally degrade in less than two months.

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“The biggest thing, though, is that seaweed eats carbon and can sequester up to twenty times more carbon than trees,” Julia said. “Seaweed is this benevolent resource as it’s harvested and processed, and we should cover the world’s oceans with seaweed farms just for that reason alone. It’s like an end all be all carbon solution.”

Currently, Sway is still working out the finer details of this material (such as how well it can withstand moisture), but they’re continuing to spread the word, and Julia is excited for what’s ahead. She and the Sway team are working to ensure seaweed processing can scale sustainably and the material will be compatible with existing packaging equipment. Additionally, at the end of 2021, they plan to launch trials. Overall, though, brands have a lot to love with the material—its regenerative qualities throughout production, non-toxicity, and its compostability.

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Sway empowers people in their purchasing choices. No longer would manufacturers have an excuse for offloading decisions about what’s best for the environment onto the consumer, and consumers could feel good about what they buy. That miracle single-use plastic replacement may finally be here.

“We can bring brands into the future, past this idea of sustainability and into regeneration where we’re actively restoring natural and human-made systems,” Julia said. “We can lead this benevolent materials revolution. There’s a wave of really generous materials that are being developed right now, and if we could create a social and environmental impact at every step of the supply chain alongside these other materials, then meaningful change is going to happen a lot sooner than people expect.”