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Q&A: Using seaweed as a plastics replacement

Olivia Simpson, CEO & co-founder of SymbioTex – a company that uses seaweed as a plastics replacement, shares why they chose seaweed and gives advice to start-up companies.

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Could you tell me about Symbiotex and what your job role entails?

The lack of recyclability is present across healthcare; for infection prevention purposes, due to the multi plastic blends used in producing medical device casings, and the lack of recycling infrastructure. A solution needs to be implemented soon given the increasing dependence on medical devices and given there is push for a Net Zero NHS by 2045. 

SymbioTex provides an alternative to the current short fall of other bioplastics - our material does not compete with land used for crops, is fully home compostable, and utilises 100% of the feedstock (seaweed - a renewable resource). SymbioTex material is processable on standard industry machinery yet has a better end of life (either by composting, incineration, or landfilling) than fossil fuel-based plastics. We aim to help create a healthcare environment that is free of single-use plastic.

I am CEO of SymbioTex, which I’m sure many fellow SME’s can relate to, means I encompass logistics, HR, sales, marketing etc! I love every second of it; I particularly love building the public relationships and pitching as it allows me to share our mission with as many people as possible!

Why seaweed?

Seaweed is a fantastic resource which has been cultivated for decades. Using seaweed as a feedstock allows us to tap into the ocean, so our material does not compete with land used for crops, nor need freshwater or fertiliser. Seaweed grows rapidly and is a natural carbon sequester.

As seaweed is one of the world’s fastest growing organisms, would you say this could be an unlimited source of biomaterials? 

This is a brilliant question but the answer is no. but it allows me to showcase the need for many different solutions, those who tackle existing plastic waste in the environment, those who switch to PET, PP and PE for long shelf-life items – which can be recycled, and biomaterials for the shorter-term items. Seaweed is the most scalable of the raw feedstocks for bioplastic out there but so much cannot be accessed until farming expands and even then, it can’t satisfy the 470mT fossil fuel market.

What medical devices can be made with this bioplastic?

Right now, we are focusing on class 1 medical devices including lateral flow tests! Excitingly our material can be processed on standard plastic machinery - the mould is the limit! We have plans in the not too distant future to tackle the lack of recyclability of inhaler cases (only 0.5% of the 60 million distributed in the UK annually are recycled). We will then undertake our biocompatibility testing to enter further medical device markets.

What advice would you give to other start-ups who are starting out in the medical industry?

Take every opportunity you get!! The medical industry is full of people who want to help you spread your innovation far and wide for the greater good! I would suggest joining networks; including your local AHSN and Medilink. Attend expos and work on your LinkedIn so you become recognised in the sector. Actively look for collaborations with research organisations, universities, trusts, and other SME’s.

You will be giving a talk at Med-Tech Innovation Expo in June - could you give us a little sneak peek into what you will be talking about?

Shinning a light on the reliance of single use plastics in the medical sector and how this relates to new policy and supply chain procurement. Emphasising that solutions must be able to: plug into existing pathways, not add an extra burden on staff resources nor extra effort from patients. 

I will be sharing an insight into the barriers solutions like ours face, and how I envision collaboration (NHS procurement, large corporates, SMEs, government & public sector) to overcome these barriers. 

I will also be sharing more detailed information on the solution we are trying to bring (100% biobased materials which are home compostable) and showing samples of medical devices made from our material!

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Publication date: 22/03/2024

Medical Plastics News


This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 870292.