This Ukrainian startup has made a new ‘polystyrene’ using mushrooms

Regardless of fleeing Ukraine when struggle erupted, S.Lab is successful awards and securing high-profile clients for its biodegradable various to polystyrene. We meet its founders

When Julia Bialetska and her husband Eugene Tomilin determined to journey the world, Bali at first appeared a paradise island.

“We have been doing browsing classes there and sooner or later all of the seashore and the ocean have been coated with this big quantity of plastic,” she remembers. “It was introduced from the ocean. And this image was so devastating, I nonetheless see it after I shut my eyes.”

That was the second, in 2016, that this Ukrainian biochemist graduate realised that she needed to do one thing about throwaway plastic. Working with the M.G. Kholodny Institute of Botany again in Kiev, she and Tomilin began experimenting. They started to develop a cloth that performed on the energy of waste hemp fibres, which they ‘glued’ along with mycelium – the community of fungal threads that mushrooms develop from. 

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Product of mushroom roots and hemp stems, S.Lab’s packaging is absolutely biodegradable and waterproof. Picture: S.Lab

The result’s a pure substitute for expanded polystyrene – that light-weight materials that’s so helpful as packaging that in 2016 we produced 6.6m metric tons of it. They will not be the one startup engaged on this sort of resolution, however Bialetska and Tomilin’s firm, referred to as S.Lab, is actually on a successful streak in the meanwhile. 

Its product has already accomplished a profitable pilot for cosmetics maker L’Oréal, the place it may very well be used to cushion shampoo and conditioner packs. Corporations resembling Samsung and Sony, in the meantime, have been exploring whether or not it could be appropriate for packaging fragile tv units.

“It’s 100 per cent biodegradable and after utilization, it will possibly simply be thrown in with the meals compost and even into the soil on the yard,” says Bialetska. Typical polystyrene, in the meantime, can take 500 years to interrupt down, and even longer, according to some estimates

“[Our material] will absolutely decompose in simply 30 days, and there are presently no [commercial] alternate options like that,” she continues. With the identical options as polystyrene or foam plastic – thermal insulating, waterproof, sturdy, and even safer by way of fireproofing, Bialetska says – what’s to not like?

Our materials will absolutely decompose in simply 30 days

However the journey hasn’t been all plain-sailing. “We began a yr earlier than the struggle began. We had our small manufacturing [facility] in Ukraine, we had clients in Ukraine, and many publicity within the media as a result of TV channels needed to do movies about us on primetime,” says Bialetska. “It was actually profitable in that early stage. And out of nowhere, this struggle hit. Like many Ukranians, we woke as much as explosions at 5am within the morning on 24 February 24, 2022.”

They deserted their work, fled by automobile to Hungary, after which Italy, earlier than taking on a deliberate residency at an accelerator programme in Copenhagen for 4 weeks. Then, like various different Ukrainian startups on the programme, they have been supplied the possibility to arrange at its new area in Spain. “We relocated tools from Ukraine to Spain with a minibus in April final yr.”

L’Oréal accomplished a profitable pilot challenge with the packaging. Picture: S.Lab

Bialetska and Tomilin – now making use of for patents with a grant from the European Financial institution for Reconstruction and Improvement – so impressed the judges of a round financial system award for innovation, the Green Alley Award, that they gained the highest prize of €25,000 (£21,748) this yr. The award additionally consists of introductions to potential shoppers and mentors. 

Choose Martin Wright says they felt this firm would actually take advantage of the award. “Expanded polystyrene as a packaging materials is totally good: that’s why it’s so standard, as a result of it really works,” he says. “So if you happen to’re going to substitute one thing, it must be pretty much as good as or higher. There are many individuals who have tried, with various levels of success, some higher and greener than others. However S.Lab hits each targets by way of being pretty much as good as expanded polystyrene and an entire lot greener. You maintain it in your palms and it really seems like polystyrene!”

A second plus is that they wish to create mini manufacturing services in small delivery containers so the product may be manufactured near market. “Assembly that requirement the place you might be chopping transport miles and making it cheaper is actually novel and that places it forward of numerous the opposite packaging from mycelium roots,” he provides. “And the ultimate factor is, they’re doing it in wartime. Below hearth, actually, they’re in a position to keep dedicated. When the entrants have been requested their tremendous energy, Julia Bialetska mentioned: ‘Our tremendous energy: we’re Ukrainian.’” 

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S.Lab is gentle on its ft by way of manufacturing, too. For each kilogram of fabric produced, lower than two litres of water is used – dramatically lower than the plastic-based various. One research, for instance, discovered that the manufacturing of 1 expanded polystyrene container required 43 litres of water. 

In the meantime, a European Union directive mandating that every one EU packaging must be viably recyclable by 2030 ought to – the group hopes – deliver them new clients and assist drive down S.Lab’s prices so that they’re on par with expanded polystyrene. Sooner or later, they goal to deliver their manufacturing services, and jobs, again to Ukraine.

“We’re creating our personal expertise to supply sustainable packaging at an industrial scale, ensuring that we have now publicity and are focusing on clients,” says Bialetska. “Principally, we wish to deliver it to the world.”

Foremost picture: S.Lab