Interview: Notpla's Head of Sustainability: Brands feel pressure

Hoa Doan is Head of Sustainability & Impact at Notpla, a fast-growing London-based company on a mission to make packaging disappear. We spoke to Hoa about Notpla’s vision, journey to date and their role in enabling brands to transition to a more sustainable approach to packaging.

Can you tell us about Notpla’s mission and products?

Notpla is a sustainable packaging company on a mission to make packaging disappear. Our products are all natural, made from seaweed and plants, and are all naturally biodegradable and home-compostable. We currently offer a range of products from takeaway boxes to oil pipets to paper. We are focussed on replacing single use packaging to become the sustainable alternatives to many of the plastic items in use every day. Each of Notpla’s products are designed to meet a specific plastic problem our customers have identified across multiple industries, from food, fashion, and cosmetics to electronics.

Can you share some of the projects you’ve been working on recently?

We work with a wide range of brands and have some number of R&D and commercial collaborations underway. Our biggest partnership so far has been with Just Eat. We have been working with them over the past few years to develop their new takeaway box. We’ve also just launched a new product with household cleaning brand MACK, using our film packaging for their home and laundry care products.

How does Notpla work in partnership with brands?

Often brands come directly to us with a specific problem they want to solve around improving the sustainability of their packaging. They come to us with the packaging they want to replace and we work in partnership with them from day one in terms of co-development, exploring how our materials can be used to create the right solution for them. Every partnership is always a design-led, collaborative effort on both sides.

Who do you find is initiating and leading these initiatives internally on the brand side?

It’s usually the sustainability teams in the first instance. Packaging and its impact has become such a huge focus for food and beverage and FMCG brands from a sustainability perspective. It’s no secret that a lot of this packaging is still made from plastic. It’s a really interesting time to be in this space as we’re starting to see a lot of new policies coming into force globally limiting or banning certain single use plastics, so brands are really feeling the pressure to look at more sustainable materials.

Which sectors are you seeing the most movement in?

We’re seeing a lot of interest in food packaging. It's probably because it is very directly linked to consumers and their awareness of plastic packaging and the impact of plastics on human health, as well as the environment. The problem of microplastics for example has been getting a lot of media coverage recently. Then after food, we’re starting to see a lot of movement in the home care and cosmetics industries. Another hugely challenging area for single use plastics is in the world of medicine and medical appliances. These sectors are heavily regulated and require a lot of testing and certification - for good reason - so are a bit behind FMCG in their adoption of novel alternatives. It definitely will happen though.

What factors are driving brands to seek out more sustainable packaging solutions?

The big driver right now is policy. Followed by growing pressure and expectations from consumers who want to make more environmentally conscious choices. And growing consumer awareness of the health implications of microplastics. The average human now ingests around 7 grams of plastic per week, that’s the equivalent of a credit card. There’s also a fundamental piece around brands really wanting to do better, to be part of the change that’s needed. Brands absolutely understand that a lot of innovation is needed. This means they are very willing to work with innovators like Nopla to transition to what we call the next generation of packaging.

What are some of the big challenges you see brands facing on their journey to roll out their next generation of packing?

The first thing is plastic has a lot of very attractive properties. Especially when it comes to packaging. It has incredible shell life, it is very cheap, it is flexible and it's heat sealable. And then, of course, there is the entire supply chain of plastic that is so developed. This means for us at Notpla, we’re not just developing new materials, but also a whole new value chain.

A great example of a novel approach to generating a new value chain is work we’re doing with one of our manufacturing partners. We were looking for an industrial partner to help us scale production of one of our boxes. We found a manufacturer that was actively looking for innovative opportunities to broaden out their offering to help strengthen and future proof their business. It’s one of those beautiful partnerships where they are able to expand their manufacturing range to do something totally different - but with exactly the same machinery - while providing us with the infrastructure and experience we need to scale.

How is Notpla approaching supply chain partnerships?

We are working with a wide range of manufacturing partners to produce our products because the dream is to really be able to replace all plastic that is out there. We very much understand that our products will have to work within existing systems and processes.

Of course, there's a big challenge in that there are a lot of proof points needed to be able to convince large manufacturing partners to take on brand new materials. For example, even once you've got the client agree, there is a whole other conversation around how you go from zero to one, but then one to 100. I think getting to that scale and convincing the manufacturing partners to be able to get that scale also takes a very long term view. And long term investment. We’re constantly thinking about how we can prove that our materials work and, crucially, proving that it's worth scaling.

Do you have any advice for brands just starting out on their next generation packing journey?

Yes, we have quite a lot of brands and companies come to us very early on, with a very open brief around exploring more sustainable packaging. Asking, where do we start? How can Notpla help? Our team, including product designers and commercial experts, work in close partnership with brands from the very beginning to look at their entire packing portfolio and look at what the quick wins could be, while building out a longer term transition strategy. Our paper is a good example of a really simple like-for-like switch that can be implemented quickly and easily. In parallel we work together on the deeper projects that will require more R&D. By taking this approach, it’s a win/win for us and the customer. They get the solutions they’re looking for, and our team continues to learn and develop new formulations we can take to market.

How do brands approach measuring the success of a project and what criteria are most important to them?

We start with an exploratory phase, followed by a pilot phase, then a larger scale roll out. The exploratory phase helps us to define together what success looks like and what metrics are most important to hit at each stage. In the early R&D stages we’re thinking primarily about product-led criteria, such as performance and durability. Can we perform equal to - or even better than - their current solution? User experience is also another important one.  Then once we have a proof of concept in place, we can think about environmental and impact focussed criteria. A product life cycle assessment is always one of the fundamental aspects of a sustainability-led project that brands look for, even for packaging. Then when we think about scaling, understanding the financials is a really key part of this journey and to getting buy-in internally. It’s no surprise that early on, a brand new material is going to be more costly than an existing plastic-based product. This work is an investment. We work closely with our customers to understand what that investment will look like for them through each phase over the long term and into wide-scale manufacture and roll out. We also have brands that value a period of exclusivity with our products. That approach offers great opportunities for PR and brand building, which can be costed into benefits of transitioning.

Do you see examples of internal pushback against a transition to next generation packaging?

Yes, it’s quite expected. Packaging is a huge part of a brand’s identity, and it touches many parts of a business and these types of projects can mean a lot of change is required. This is partly why we began with takeaway boxes. The businesses can produce exactly the same food, and the packing transition required is simply switching out one container for another. Other use cases can be much more complicated, where we have to really co-create a new product design process with the customer. Timelines are longer, approvals are more complicated, and you need a lot of champions across many different departments to have buy-in. The key stakeholders are generally the sustainability lead, product managers, the finance team and the procurement team.

Finally, could you share a bit about the work Notpla is doing on the education and policy side of the packaging transition?

The legislation that’s starting to come though around single use plastics is really beginning to drive meaning change. And we need to keep that momentum going. Notpla has recently co-founded an advocacy group called the Natural Polymers Group, a group of seven global startups innovating in this space. We are collaborating to help push legislation forward and raise awareness of truly sustainable plastic alternatives. This November we expect to finally see agreement on an international treaty to end plastic pollution. This is going to be a huge step forward because globally half of plastic pollution comes from packaging or single use plastic items. It is going to be a really big moment for us as an industry. It’s a huge opportunity to really be able to come together and demonstrate that natural, alternative solutions are performing at scale and are even better than plastic in some cases.

If you could make one recommendation to the FMCG industry, what would it be?

We are on a mission to transform the packaging industry and provide solutions that do no harm and respect the rhythms of nature. We believe that FMCG brands should invest in sustainable packaging solutions that can reduce plastic waste and protect the environment. Join us and let's make it happen!


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