Learning from nature: Xampla creates world-first biobased plastic packaging alternative
An ambitious UK spinout has developed a next-generation plant-based alternative to plastic. Xampla’s biomimetic approach could solve one of the world’s most pernicious environmental problems: the plastic pollution entering our soils, our water, and even – our food.
Around 15 years ago, Professor Tuomas Knowles, a protein biophysics expert from the University of Cambridge (UK) set about discovering how the humble spider could make silk – a material five times stronger than steel. His research uncovered a process for turning plant proteins into a range of high-performance materials that mimic the properties of spider silk, but without the spider.
Xampla [‘Zam-pluh’] wants to replace the everyday single-use plastics we see all around us – from sachets and flexible packaging films to the less obvious microplastics in our liquids and lotions.
Their revolutionary alternative is the world’s first plant protein ‘plastic’ for commercial packaging use. It’s a next-generation material that performs like conventional fossil fuel-based plastics, but decomposes naturally and completely – without harming the environment.
Sharp focus is key to tackling a global catastrophe
The potential of a ‘plastic-free plastic’ is obvious, but Xampla CEO, Simon Hombersley said tackling a problem as ubiquitous as plastic pollution is all about focus – a key ingredient for any successful startup.
“We have two main focus areas at the moment: one is a microplastics application, and the other is a single-use plastic application.”
Xampla’s first product to market replaces microplastic fragrance capsules. Simon explained, “In all our clothes in the wash, and in most fabric softener products, are tiny melamine [resin] formaldehyde capsules, designed to release fragrance to make our clothes smell fresh. But they are polluting, and being banned in Europe.”
Their other urgent priority is single-use plastic film sachets, like those used for dishwasher tablets, which seemingly disappear in the wash. Simon explained, “The plastic dissolves so we can’t see it, but it’s still plastic, that then goes out into the watercourse and pollutes.”
Xampla will launch a number of plant-based packaging products, starting with a microplastics application, and a single-use plastic application.
Plastic: the man-made disaster polluting every corner of the Earth
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) states we’ve become addicted to single-use plastic — with disastrous environmental consequences. Half of all plastic produced is used just once and discarded. Every year, we produce almost the weight of the entire global population in plastic waste.
“None of us like the idea of plastic pollution. And particularly in developed countries, where we’ve got recycling, we may feel we’re doing our bit and plastic isn’t such a problem anymore. Well, I’m afraid it is a problem,” said Simon.
Only 9% of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. 79% has accumulated in landfill or is dumped in the natural environment where it can persist for centuries – breaking down into smaller and smaller particles, which work their way up the food chain, into our drinking water and onto our dinner plates.
Plastic waste is now so pervasive that scientists think it will serve as the heartbreaking geological indicator of the Anthropocene era.
“There is more plastic being generated, made and leaking into the environment every single year, year on year, so we have to do something about it,” said Simon.
The world’s first plant-based plastic alternative that leaves nothing behind
There are plant-based ‘degradable’ plastics on the market, but Simon sees them as a transitional product: better than fossil-fuel plastics, but not the solution the world desperately needs.
He explained, “Plants have two parts: polysaccharides and proteins. All the materials on the market [today] are made from plant polysaccharides. They’re easy to work with and relatively cost-effective. But they’re soluble and not particularly robust. In order to make a plastic, you have to chemically modify it and that means when it hits the environment, its chemical composition has changed. It becomes more polluting.”
Plant proteins on the other hand are fundamentally stronger and need no chemical alteration. “[If Xampla products] hit the ocean; or they hit the soil at the end of life – they’re simply digested. They’re turned back into amino acids and metabolised by the creatures that eat them. So it’s a much safer end-of-life story.”
Xampla’s core science means many plants could become next-gen plastics
Xampla’s launch applications use pea protein, as it’s readily available in Northern Europe and requires less inputs, due to its nitrogen-fixing qualities. “Our core science is about taking proteins and engineering them into new materials. There are a whole bunch of different plants around the world that we can work with,” said Simon. Such as lupins in Australia, rice in Asia and cassava in Africa – to help localise and shorten our sprawling supply chains.
While Xampla currently use commercially available plant protein isolates, Simon explained, “We are very sensitive to the debate about materials versus food. It’s not really sustainable to be growing large amounts of plants for materials that could be grown for food. So as we scale, we’re looking into agricultural co-products – waste streams – and how we can valorise them [for feedstock].”
Building a business for a post-plastic world
Xampla is the UK’s first university spinout to be accredited as a B Corp [businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability] – giving it what Simon calls, “a sort of statutory duty to balance profit with purpose”.
And they have the backing of some of the biggest names in global venture capital. Xampla’s recent £6.4 million seed funding round closed with support from the UK, US, and Hong Kong’s Horizons Ventures – early backers of disruptive tech giants like Facebook, Spotify and Zoom. Their support is a mark of the disruptive potential of Xampla’s solution.
Xampla CEO, Simon Hombersley at Falling Walls Venture, Berlin. Photograph by Florian Gaertner.
With seed funding secure, Simon stresses the importance of taking a “long view” to meet customer needs. “Our biggest challenge is ensuring that when we engage with businesses, (and some of these are very large companies that move very slowly), we’re offering the solution, they actually want. We need to drop into existing manufacturing processes and work with existing supply chains.”
“I’m building a business for Xampla in 2040, [asking] ‘What does the world look like in a post-plastic period, and how can we as a business supply that?’”
Cost parity with fossil fuel plastic isn’t realistic, yet
Xampla products aren’t cost compatible with fossil fuel plastics – the reason for that is very simple, he explained. “Oil is practically free, and the industry has had 80 years to optimise both scale and cost. So plastic is very, very cheap and that’s why it’s so ubiquitous.”
In a world where consumers are increasingly demanding sustainable products, cost isn’t the determining factor it once was. “There are many brands from many major companies that are genuinely and sincerely committed to phasing out [fossil fuel] plastic in their products. We’re not pushing against a closed door here.”
“Plastic is an extraordinary thing. But plastic can change. It doesn’t need to be made from fossil fuels. By 2040, I do believe the majority of plastics on this planet will be made from plants. And that will be good for everybody.”
Xampla’s co-founding team: Simon Hombersley, Professor Tuomas Knowles and Dr Marc Rodriguez Garcia.
For further inquiries, please contact Katrina Curl, Xampla’s Head of Marketing & Communications via email or phone: +07763133498.
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