Plastic is a problem. In Canada, nearly 90% of single use plastics end up in landfills, incinerators, lakes, parks and oceans. Introduced in the 1950s, the production of plastic has grown 230 fold from 2 million tons per year in 1950 to 460 million metric tons in 2019. A recent report estimated 33 billion pounds of plastic enter the marine environment every year, equivalent to “dumping two garbage trucks full of plastic into the oceans every minute.”
Plastics do not break down easily but rather degrade into smaller fragments known as microplastics and nano plastics. They can remain in the environment for hundreds and even thousands of years. These tiny particles enter every level of the food chain, contaminating marine life and even humans.
For over three decades, while the global community has awoken to the powerful human impact and the repercussions to the Earth’s geology and ecosystems, little has been done to curb human behavior. Here are some alarming stats from the World Economic Forum;
- Approximately 36% of all plastic produced is used to create packaging, 85% of which ends up in landfills.
- About 98% of single-use plastic products are made from fossil fuels.
- Every hour, 2.5 million plastic bottles are thrown away in the U.S.
- Between 75 and 199 million tons of plastic are currently in our oceans.
The growth of online retail contributes to a packaging market that shows no signs of abating. This report reveals the global packaging market is expected to grow “from USD 1.10 trillion in 2023 to USD 1.33 trillion by 2028, at a CAGR of 3.94%”.
We are making progress, however. According to Markets Report, more consumers and businesses are demanding more sustainable solutions. This report cites 73% of consumers willing to pay premium rates for products that come in sustainable packaging. Government regulation in recent years has made it more difficult to use non-sustainable packaging.
One company, Neptune Nanotechnologies, and its founder have been thinking about this problem for some time. Aaron Guan, the CEO of Neptune Nanotechnologies, has emerged as a visionary entrepreneur with a mission to revolutionize the nanocrystal market.
Born in China and raised in Canada, Guan’s entrepreneurial journey from a young graduate student to a nanotechnology pioneer is nothing short of inspiring. Guan’s academic journey began at the University of Toronto, where he pursued a degree in mechanical engineering with a strong focus on nanomaterials. During his master’s program, he examined biodegradable nanomaterials, seeking solutions to integrate their physical and mechanical properties sustainably. His curiosity led him to explore the strength and biodegradability of crab shells, eventually discovering the remarkable chitin nanocrystals, naturally present within them.
“When I was doing my masters program, I was working on a biodegradable plastics project. It was all the rage back then. There was a demand for sustainability, but the problem with bioplastics is they have weak physical and mechanical properties. They’re brittle and break easily. We needed to figure out a way to enhance the strength without incorporating toxic chemical additives or other non-biodegradable fillers, which had been done previously”.
Inspired by the potential of nanocrystals, Guan’s motivation ignited him on a path to transform his research on nanocrystals into a business, embarking on his entrepreneurial journey and founding his first company, BOCO Bio-Nanotechnologies.
“I always hated how tough the crab legs were to break open. And it occurred to me that crab is biodegradable but it’s also incredibly strong. So, I started doing research and digging into a material called chitin. The chitin material has been studied in the past and it has a very unique structure where these nanocrystals exist naturally inside these shell structures. But there has never been an effective way of commercially extracting these nanocrystals and keeping them intact”.
“The ultimate source of these nanocrystals is organic fishing waste. Today, there exists an industry that goes out, collects these shells and purifies them. We are able to actually purchase purified forms of the shells in a very industrially standard way and extract our nanocrystals from the waste. We can still sell them back into the same industry so they can extract the chemicals. So, what this allows us is a consistent supply source. In return, most of our costs are covered by reselling them back into that industry”.
The path to success was not without hurdles for Guan. His first startup faced numerous challenges, including initial funding, and ultimately partnering with the wrong investors. Despite achieving product-market fit and successfully raising a Series A round, Guan found himself ousted from the company he founded. These challenges served as valuable lessons that carried him to his next venture.
Undeterred by past setbacks, Guan founded Neptune Nanotechnologies, determined to commercialize the nanocrystal technology effectively. He realized the importance of making the technology frictionless for end-users, leading Neptune to focus on applications like epoxy composites, pulp and paper, and plastic packaging. Neptune’s nanocrystals offered unparalleled strength, fracture resistance, and barrier performance, addressing critical pain points in various industries.
Guan uses Tim Horton’s coffee trays as an example of the material transformation with Neptune nanocrystals:
“We are looking at more than doubling the flexural strength of the paper that makes up these trays. The process known as ‘down gauging’ maintains the strength of the product while using less material. Considering paper packaging is used in shipping all over the world, drastic weight reductions can prevent significant CO2s from being emitted in the first place”.
With their most recent $1.8 million in funding, Neptune has developed a pilot plant for manufacturing nanocrystals at a scalable level. Guan envisions future funding rounds to further scale up production and penetrate different markets. Neptune aims to revolutionize the plastic packaging industry with a recyclable single-layer film, offer sustainable alternatives in epoxy composites, and redefine the paper industry with more robust and eco-friendly products. Guan remarked how traditional recycled paper packaging is often flimsy and fragile but can be transformed into a material extremely resilient and strong by incorporating just 1% of the chitin nanocrystals in its composition, a prospect that aims to revolutionize the recycled packaging industry.
At the heart of Neptune’s innovation lies sustainability. By sourcing organic waste from fisheries and converting it into nanocrystals, the company not only ensures a consistent supply but also contributes to waste reduction and environmental preservation. With partnerships already in place and field tests underway, Neptune is making a significant impact in multiple industries.
Guan’s entrepreneurial journey from a graduate student to a visionary nanocrystal pioneer is a testament to the power of passion, perseverance, and innovation. As Neptune Nanotechnologies continues to lead the charge in sustainable nanotechnology, Guan’s focus on addressing market pain points, fostering valuable partnerships, and pursuing scalable solutions promises a brighter future for both the company and the planet. In this future, he envisions a more ubiquitous application of chitin nanocrystals:
“Ultimately, we see chitin nanocrystals as platform technology, or a physical additive with a broad appeal. The application potential is endless: plastics, composites, rubbers, coatings, adhesives, 3D printing, biomedical. We can also bring more performance and sustainability to all of these products mentioned. The endeavor for stronger, lighter and better engineering materials are a natural part of our product evolution. We will also continue to strive for more sustainable materials–a mandate for Neptune Nanotechnologies. We need to find a way to balance both. And I think Neptune is doing this”.
The transformation of waste into valuable nanocrystals serves as a powerful example of how one person’s drive can influence positive change in an environment desperately in need of radical approaches.
Original article featured on Forbes.