The demand for packaging has been steadily climbing for years. Growing alongside it is the food supply—and alongside the food surge is a spike in byproducts from agriculture. NAFICI Environmental Research connected the dots between these three growth trends and came up with a business plan around all of them.
Ultimately the young company, based near London, is capitalizing on the need for packaging materials while working to save a lot of trees that would otherwise have served as feedstock. And at the same time, it’s making use of that glut of crop byproduct.
NAFICI’s brainchild is a process to transform agriculture residues into paper pulp for the packaging industry. The two primary applications are corrugated boards and food service packaging.
“We call the process ‘EcoPulping.’ It’s about saving resources and it’s about using waste otherwise left to rot or burn and cause emissions. At the same time farmers will have a new income stream,” says Florence Miremadi, co-founder and CEO of NAFICI Environmental Research.
What differentiates EcoPulping from traditional wood pulping is it requires up to 50% less energy and up to 95% less water due to liquid recovery, according to Miremadi. The process involves low heat, no pressure, and uses chemical recovery as well.
So far, the technology has market presence in China only, though NAFICI is working to expand its reach. Miremadi’s pitch to mills is that it can help their bottom line.
“We work to make it economical even at small-scale capacity to enable packaging mills to build their own EcoPulping plants near the feedstock. This provides an alternative to importing wood pulp to their packaging factory,” she says.
NAFICI debales raw material and mixes it in liquid in a biotank. Then what Miremadi calls “the secret sauce” involves softening the lignin in order to extract fiber from agriculture residue.
The next step, like traditional, existing methods, is a mechanical process to refine, dewater, clean, and screen material.
NAFICI built two small pilot plants; one in the UK in 2014 and another in China in 2017 to prove the concept and is now building the first commercial-scale plant in China. It will use wheat straw, which is the stem that usually goes to waste, and is projected to launch in mid2021.
NAFICI has a joint venture in China, and is working through its subsidiary, Shenzhen NAFICI EcoCellulose Technology, who will build more plants there.
And now the company is in discussion with European foodservice packaging and corrugated board packaging manufacturers.
China was a fairly easy inroad; it imports a lot of raw material for packaging and has a huge problem with agriculture waste that was historically burned, causing pollution. It’s proving harder to get buy-in in Europe. But NAFICI is looking for European packaging companies to invest in plants or buy pulp that they can use for their products.
It wants to build another commercial-scale plant in Europe to showcase the process.
“The plan moving forward is to license the technology globally. But we are open to joint ventures where we would be involved in operating and procuring equipment,” Miremadi says.
The global packaging market should expand by almost 3% per annum between 2018 and 2028, reaching over $1.2 trillion, project authors of
The Future of Packaging: Long-Term Strategic Forecast to 2028. With the explosion in e-commerce, some predict even greater demand.
This demand is spurring conversations around the sustainability of packaging, and in turn driving more innovations, whether lighter-weight material, more recycled content – or concepts like NAFICI’s—to use unique alternatives as feedstock.
Some of these packaging innovators are literally thinking outside of the box with creations like compostable packaging from shellfish waste and a biobased polymer inside the shellfish that comes from renewable waste. Not quite as avant-garde as EcoPulped food residue and shellfish packaging but still sustainable, is packaging made from cornstarch.
Innovations like these, and the entrepreneurs behind them, are critical to solving major sustainability challenges, attests Caesare Assad, CEO of Food System 6 (FS6).
FS6 is a nonprofit accelerator working to address social and environmental issues around food and agriculture. NAFICI was one of its most recent accelerator participants.
“As a nonprofit we are focused on shared approaches to innovation and market cooperation in order to move circularity forward. And that is our goal in supporting entrepreneurs.”
Speaking specifically of Miremadi’s work, Assad says, “NAFICI’s innovative technology is closing the loop in a traditionally disconnected system of fiber production and waste, paving the way for a more resilient and sustainable future food economy.”