Ep. 17: Circularity with Seaweed with Julia Marsh of Sway

Keith’s guest this week is Julia Marsh, the co-founder and CEO of Sway, a biomaterials company replacing plastics with regenerative materials made from seaweed. As a designer, Julia spent over a decade building brand and packaging systems for consumer goods companies, tech startups, and design studios, winning the Closed Loop Partners Beyond the Bag Challenge in 2021, and a finalist for the Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize in 2022. Join this conversation as Sway announces a $5 million in fresh funding, and Julia brings an incredible perspective on the role of design in packaging and solving problems in sustainability, why seaweed is such a high potential alternative to petroleum-based plastics, the state of and outlook for composting infrastructure, where Sway’s packaging works best, and what’s next for Sway.

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Keith Anderson: Welcome to Decarbonizing Commerce, where we explore what’s new, interesting, and actionable at the intersection of climate innovation and commerce. I’m your host, Keith Anderson, and together we’ll meet entrepreneurs and innovators reinventing retail, e-commerce, and consumer products through the lenses of low carbon and commercial viability. 

Hi, and welcome to the Decarbonizing Commerce podcast. I’m your host, Keith Anderson. Our guest this week is Julia Marsh, the co-founder and CEO of Sway, a biomaterials company replacing plastics with regenerative materials made from seaweed. As a designer, Julia spent over a decade building brand and packaging systems for consumer goods companies, tech startups, and design studios.

In 2021, Sway won the Closed Loop Partners Beyond the Bag Challenge. In 2022, they were a finalist in the Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize. And just a few weeks ago in 2024, Sway announced $5 million in fresh funding. And Julia brings really incredible perspective on the role of design in packaging and solving problems in sustainability.

Why seaweed is such a high potential alternative to petroleum-based plastics, the state of and outlook for composting infrastructure, where Sway’s packaging works best, and what’s next for Sway. So I’m really excited to welcome Julia Marsh, co-founder and CEO of Sway, to the show. 

Hi, Julia. Welcome to Decarbonizing Commerce and congratulations on the funds you just raised.

Julia Marsh: Thanks, Keith. It was a huge effort and we’re really happy to celebrate.

Keith Anderson: Well, you’re the second of our guests so far to join us within a day or two of raising a round. So, and, and in both cases, I didn’t realize it when I invited them. So, hopefully it’s a pattern that continues.

Julia Marsh: You’ve got the Midas touch. Yeah.

Keith Anderson: That’s what, that’s what I’d like potential guests to believe anyway. Well, maybe a good place to start is, why don’t we tell the audience what is Sway and how did it come to be?

Julia Marsh: So Sway is a materials company. We are replacing plastics with seaweed. And it came to be through my love of materials of the circular economy of design. I’m a designer by trade. I spent about a decade building branded packaging systems. So working with CPGs and design studios and tech companies to make their visions a reality.

And I’m at… I was oftentimes sourcing materials or involved in implementing or making those materials beautiful. And it was just sitting at total odds with my background as also an environmentalist and someone who grew up in California. So, we started the company just a few years ago and we’ve made a lot of progress since then.

Keith Anderson: So, it sounds like plastics were sort of, a driving factor behind it. Why are plastics such a problem? They’re so pervasive and they’ve got, you know, some, some benefits that I think are tough for certain industries to quit.

Julia Marsh: Everyone, I feel like, yeah, everyone knows a bit about the plastic problem. It’s kind of one of those, “please don’t tell me any more about the plastic problem” situations. So I’ll, I’ll just be brief here. There is no industry that is immune from plastic or the generation of plastic pollution. It’s something everyone’s confronted with in some capacity, and unfortunately, demand for packaging is only increasing.

It’s made from petroleum, and more than likely, it’s going to go into nature or into landfill or it’s going to be incinerated. And what we have to do when we’re thinking about plastic is think “why do we continue to use it?” Well, it’s very good at its job. That’s why it’s been so hard to replace. And then, like, “where is it actually necessary?”

I would say that about 50 to 60 percent of plastic is completely unnecessary and can just be cut out of the equation entirely. When you look at thin film plastic, which is what Sway is focused on, these are necessary plastics. They’re usually for hygiene or to prevent products from being damaged in shipping.

They’re also the most difficult to recycle and they’re the most difficult to replace. So, I think looking at necessary plastics that are doing a real function, that’s where we need to focus our time and innovation. And that’s also the, yeah, the hardest problem to solve.

Keith Anderson: Yeah. Yeah, I, I mean, it’s, it’s been such an interesting space for me as an observer because you’re exactly right. I think everybody on some level acknowledges the problem. And there have been different approaches, recycling, composting, a lot of the industry, it seems to me, is continuing to place bets on recycling.

And again, talking about infrastructure that they’ll invest in and develop, but, you know, even some of the most forward looking companies and their coalitions have been lagging the targets they set for themselves. And so, then I think in parallel, when you look at compostability, it, it’s got its own challenges.

You know, you’re much closer to this than I am, obviously. How would you characterize the state of play now and where do you see things headed?

Julia Marsh: Huge momentum towards recycling. Of course, it’s easier, it’s more straightforward, and there’s a lot of incentive for plastics manufacturers to continue working with the material they already know. Big oil is also betting on plastic to save itself, so there’s some definite agendas playing out. BP projected that over the next 20 years, 95 percent of net growth and demand for oil would come from plastics.


Keith Anderson: How much of that is packaging? Do you know?

Julia Marsh: Packaging makes up, I think, about 40 percent of all plastic produced, something like that. Yeah.

Keith Anderson: So non-trivial part of that growth story.

Julia Marsh: Non-trivial for sure. Yeah. And again, the sheer volume of plastic and again, like specifically focused on flexible packaging is just, it’s unfathomable for the brain to calculate. Five trillion bags, wrappers, pouches, plastic bags are produced every year. That’s 160, 000 bags every second. Another second. Another second. So just the sheer volume is huge. You can’t recycle your way out of that problem. It’s going to take multiple types of solutions. So while recycling may be good for certain applications, we also need to just remove packaging entirely in certain places.

And then there’s a role for compostable packaging to play as well. We would argue it makes sense where the material’s coming into contact with food and it’s being contaminated, it’s not going to be recycled anyway. It might even help alleviate food waste by encouraging people to compost. Or in use cases where there is access to compost infrastructure.

Or where there’s a high likelihood that behind the scenes, the brand can actually collect that packaging and compost it. So I think it’s a, it’s very like use-case-specific matchmaking.

Keith Anderson: Do you see infrastructure investment or scalability of that end-of-life component happening in composting? I mean, I see different approaches. There’s new national household startups launching. There’s municipal composting. Where I live in Boston, there’s three or four services that service my neighborhood, but they’re all private and opt-in.

And then there’s a small minority of folks in the area that have their own backyard compost. You know, what’s your projection of what the landscape will look like over the next three or five years or so?

Julia Marsh: In the United States, I do believe composting is an inevitability. In the same way that we need to realize recycling only properly began in the 70s, we can absolutely adopt commonplace composting behavior. It makes a ton of sense, not just from the packaging perspective, but again, from the food-waste perspective. It makes no sense that any biological material should be going to landfill.

It should all be literally biologically recycled. So I think that’s an inevitability. There’s lots of reasons why that will continue to scale and there are a number of investments going into expanding domestic infrastructure. We also know that these systems can work because they’re successful with it in Europe.

Italy is extremely great at composting. It’s just a normal part of everyday life, or you see expanded programs in New York, or like you mentioned, for people living in cities, things like below me, or the mill bin, where there is just this routine of, yeah, not throwing organic waste into the trash.

So, I think all those different avenues give me hope, but, yeah, most people today, they don’t compost.

Keith Anderson: Well, I suppose since we’re talking about that end-of-life stage, you know, what happens with Sway packaging if someone is unable to compost it?

Julia Marsh: So, we’ve designed to give the consumer optionality. The best use case is, you compost it in your home bin. Mix it in with your backyard compost. We adhere to the TUV Austria Home Compost Certification, which means less than 180 days, it’ll decompose naturally. If you have access to industrial compost, it’ll degrade even quicker, less than 48 days.

And then if you don’t have those options, We put it in the trash bin, but it’ll decompose similar to a fruit peel. So while that may not be better or ideal, it’s, it’s a reality. And for now we can say this is better than the alternative, which is that material kind of living in existence for all eternity, in one form or another.

Keith Anderson: Yep. Can we talk a little bit about if we were to compare and contrast some of these bioplastics to the conventional materials, you know, on technical factors, how do they compare and where are strengths or weaknesses? What do the economics look like? You know, I think in many cases, the environmental considerations are what draws people to the topic of packaging and then as the seats at the table get filled by people in branding or supply chain or operations, all these other questions pop up.

Julia Marsh: that’s true. I’ve been in the position again of selecting materials. So I understand the trade offs and the considerations that designers and packaging and sustainability teams are making. The most common alternatives to plastic come from corn, potato, sugarcane, wood. And a lot of these alternatives fall short in one way or another.

Maybe on performance, maybe on timeline for decomposition, or maybe they’re not really that plant based, like a lot of alternatives are maybe 10 percent plants and then the rest is not bio based. And then most of them are way more expensive than traditional plastic. So, depending on what your priorities are, it makes one of those solutions better than another.

A lot of brands are turning towards paper, that’s the overwhelming strategy, is “we’ll just turn to paper while we wait for a better solution to come.” But in some cases, you really do need the properties of plastic. You need transparency, heat sealability, stretch, moisture resistance, oxygen barrier.

These qualities that makes plastic so great in the first place. And so what we look at doing is understanding the customer need. Has plastic been over engineered to solve the problem they’re focused on? For example, packaging for toilet paper? Like, if you go to Costco and you buy a big bag of toilet paper, that’s seven layers of film.

It looks like one, but it’s seven layers of film. It could last forever. It’s so completely mismatched with what the actual use case is. So, like, really teasing out what performance is actually necessary, and then how do you prioritize impact? Are you thinking about end-of-life? Are you thinking about sourcing?

Are you thinking about livelihoods, like the S in ESG? And we try to understand that piece and then we can make recommendations on which of our products are going to check those boxes. But, to answer the question, these materials come at a premium. We’re a startup, we’re growing, so of course they come at a premium.

But in the long term, we really see a path where we can be competitive with all these alternatives. And eventually, as we hit commercial scale, competitive with a lot of different types of plastic.

Keith Anderson: Maybe it would be worth going into a little more detail on why seaweed? You know, I think that there’s been a little momentum building with seaweed and sort of ocean based materials. And I think you’re, you’re one of the leaders building momentum in that space. Why is that a superior option versus some of the prevailing bioplastics?

And I’d love to learn more about how it plays into the idea of regeneration. 

Julia Marsh: Yeah, so there are so many interesting alternative feedstocks. Seaweed is the most compelling for basically every reason. So where the alternatives fall short, seaweed exceeds. For those who don’t know, there are 12, 000 species of seaweed, maybe more that we haven’t discovered in the depths of the ocean.

They come in reds, browns, greens, and they contain natural polymers, which you’re possibly already using in your daily life. Seaweed is in your toothpaste. It’s in some of your facial creams. It’s in your donut glaze. It’s a sneaky ingredient that these natural polymers are around, and that’s the same component of seaweed that we use in our packaging materials.

It wants to gel. It wants to stretch. But the seaweed sourcing story is what is creating so much momentum around seaweed as a, as a, feedstock. 

You don’t need fresh water. You don’t need land. You don’t need pesticides. You don’t need much time. It grows 20 to 30 times faster than corn or sugarcane.

And we live on a blue planet. The majority of Earth is ocean. So there’s seemingly infinite space for us to cultivate this material to not subtract from, you know, food crops. And then to also require very few carbon-intensive inputs. That makes it very compelling. There’s the coastal livelihood component.

So people living on coastlines who are affected by overfishing, they can turn to seaweed as a reliable source of income. There’s this burgeoning blue economy that really people are very excited about. All of those benefits contribute to this idea of regeneration, that a feedstock actually gives more than it takes.

And then that’s not even all of it. So while you’re cultivating seaweed, you’re actually filtering excess nutrients, you’re mitigating ocean acidification, which is one of the negative effects of climate change. You’re actually potentially improving biodiversity by creating habitat for biodiverse life.

They’re all, yeah, there’s just like so much goodness baked into seaweed and that’s just at the source. And then you get to process it, turn it into something that biodegrades naturally, that actually adds nutrient content after it’s used. And some companies, like mine, are able to engineer these materials to perform really well, so the consumer has a great experience.

It’s just kind of checking every box, like no matter which way you spin it, seaweed is really going to be the future for a lot of materials.

Keith Anderson: It’s so interesting. The bioplastics world, I think, has immense potential, and just starting to understand some of the different approaches and considerations across that spectrum of, you know, consumer to sourcing is really interesting. Let’s talk a little bit more about some of the applications that are already out in the wild and where you’re starting to see traction.

Who’s interested, what’s working, maybe just to, to start, step through some of the types of packaging that are in your portfolio at this moment and the kinds of products or use cases that they support.

Julia Marsh: Sure, so we have three buckets of products today. We have our first wave films, which are being used primarily as windows in retail boxes. We have an ingredient, which is a thermoplastic seaweed resin. We call it TPC, that can be used by plastic manufacturers in all kinds of use cases. And then we have a thermoplastic film, which we call TPC Flex.

And this is a flexible film that can be used for all different types of use cases, bags, wrappers, pouches. We’re starting with a focus on fashion.

Keith Anderson: in fashion, is it, I assume it’s primarily bags.

Julia Marsh: Poly bags. Yeah, so we Really wanted to focus on ubiquitous materials that, for whatever reason, cannot be eliminated from supply chains. And polybags are a really, pronounced issue in the fashion industry. There are 180 billion of them used every single year in the fashion space alone. It’s a huge issue.

Last year we won first place in the Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize. This was a global competition to find solutions for this really, really ubiquitous type of packaging that keeps products safe while they’re being shipped that, you know, is necessary, but unfortunately is almost exclusively plastic.

That was a, that was a big focus for us. And so far we’ve seen great traction with brands like J. Crew and Burton and smaller brands as well. And, we actually just launched, more access to these materials via our website. 

Keith Anderson: And you also just launched a, a seaweed window. Can you tell us a bit about the use cases and why you made that?

Julia Marsh: Yes, I’m so excited about this. So our team wanted to find a way to really address sneaky plastics, the ones that maybe you don’t think about, but that are all around us. I encourage you as you’re going down the grocery store aisle next time to just observe how many product windows there are. It’s this piece of plastic that there really is no desirable end-of-life for.

It’s not going to get recycled. It’s just going to landfill and they’re everywhere. So we partnered up with EcoEnclose, who’s a leading sustainable packaging, provider here in the States and designed retail boxes with seaweed windows. So they come with a 100 percent recycled fiber box. The window is 100 percent biobased, primarily seaweed, and we have two stock offerings that we launched so that anybody can get access to these materials.

I think a lot of folks in the world don’t feel like they can access innovative materials, so we thought it would be special to just let them be available at the click of a button. And then we also do custom collaborations. So the most recent activation we did with seaweed windows is with a sustainable swimwear brand called Le Club.

And we designed this custom box for them. I love the box form factor because it gives you so many dimensions for messaging, for storytelling. We did a custom circular window and really played out this overlap between the oceans being a source of the solutions and people who love to swim and purchasing the product should be investing in those solutions.

So yeah, it really just was such, such fun and really just the beginning in terms of how we’re creating customized solutions for brands. 

Keith Anderson: Hey folks, this is the part of the show where we say thank you and see you soon to the general audience, plus and higher tier members of Decarbonize.co, stay tuned for the rest of the episode.

And you mentioned, the website, you know, if, if folks want to learn more about the product or the material or get in touch with you, where would you send them?

Julia Marsh: Yeah, if what I’ve described is interesting, if you like the oceans, if you’re interested in composting or just using new renewable materials, you can visit swaythefuture.com. We have inquiry forums. If you’re a company that makes biobased or biodegradable or compostable products. We have an ingredient called TPC that you can blend into those products.

So, we’re really looking for folks to come play with us, to explore, to experiment. We also have those packaging solutions I described. So, swaythefuture.com, come say hi. 

Keith Anderson: Well, Julia, this has been really incredible. I appreciate you joining the show. 

Julia Marsh: Thanks. Love chatting with you. This was the most natural flow. I really enjoy it.

Keith Anderson: Thanks for listening. I’m Keith Anderson, the executive producer and host of Decarbonizing Commerce. Sonic Futures handles audio, music, and video production. If you enjoyed the show, we’d really appreciate it if you took a moment to subscribe and leave a review or share it with a colleague. For the full episode and more member exclusive insight and analysis, join the Decarbonizing Commerce community at Decarbonize.co. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you on the next episode of Decarbonizing Commerce.

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