A New Business Accelerator Takes on Plastic Pollution

The South Morava river in Serbia filled with discarded plastic bottles and other garbage in 2013 Photograph by Sasa Djordjevic/AFP via Getty Images

Plastic may be toxic, and it lasts forever, but it’s also extremely convenient. “It’s a great material, very versatile,” says Daniella Russo, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and activist. If you want companies to stop using it, she says, you need to offer viable alternatives—and provide assistance to the startups coming up with them.

That’s why Russo last month co-launched the Think Beyond Plastic Business Accelerator, which calls itself the world’s first accelerator to focus on eliminating plastic pollution. In exchange for equity, the Menlo Park (Calif.) company helps startups develop affordable, sustainable plastic alternatives that meet the specific needs and goals of large corporations. It works with the startups on cultivating business relationships with those corporations and bringing their products to market. “We’re very excited because nobody has ever tried this before,” says Russo, Think Beyond Plastic’s chief executive officer. “I look at it as a very untapped investment opportunity. I mean, we’re looking at a $400 billion market [for plastic], and half of it is used for single use and disposable plastic.”

The accelerator, currently made up of five employees, already has announced partnerships with four startups, each going after a different piece of the disposable plastics market. For plastic utensils, Think Beyond Plastic has turned to Aspenware. “Plastic utensils are one of the top 10 items causing plastic pollution,” says Russo. “[Aspenware's] utensils are made of wood pulp that’s sustainably harvested—basically a byproduct of the forestry industry.” Russo’s team is now helping to make sure the startup’s tableware meets the criteria of various customers, from fast-food restaurants to universities. “For airlines, price point is important, but so is weight,” she explains.

Another goal is to develop better single-serve coffee pods. “One of the biggest new products causing plastic pollution last year [was] the Keurig K-Cup,” she says. It’s not just the environment that’s affected—the plastic used to make the K-Cup, like many others, leeches toxic chemicals into the product that can interfere with the human endocrine system. “Basically, with your coffee, you get a toxic cocktail full of endocrine disruptors,” she explains. Russo is working with PulpWorks, the developer of a paper-based material that incorporates clay nanoparticals, making it impervious to water and resistant to high temperatures.

Russo won’t name any names yet but says her accelerator is already in touch with dozens of major corporations and brands. “We have a mandate from pretty much all these companies to present them with innovation opportunities.”

It helps that plastic pollution has been getting lots of attention, in part because of alarming discoveries showing that we’ve polluted the entire globe—even Arctic sea ice—with microplastics. “The last five years, I’ve seen this issue emerge and take dominance over many other environmental issues,” says Russo. “Climate change: You can see it and feel it, but many people continue to deny that it’s happening. You can’t deny the existence of a plastic bottle on the street or a pile of trash in the ocean.”

Still, it takes more than bad news to change human habits. In 2010, the world consumed 256 million tons of plastic, according to Europe Plastics, up from a mere 1.5 million tons in 1957. Efforts to recycle have not been effective, and Russo says the bioplastics—plastics derived from renewable sources, such as cellulose and corn starch—industry has mostly been a bust, largely because it lacks standard regulations. “To recycle bioplastics you need a completely different collection infrastructure,” she adds. “If you take bioplastics and put it in the recycling stream with conventional plastics, it renders the entire stream unusable.”

Think Beyond Plastic, an outgrowth of Russo’s innovation forum of the same name, is banking on business savvy to come to the rescue. “We found that there are a number of companies today working on these problems, but they’re having trouble getting their products to customers,” says Russo. “The barriers to entry are very high … that’s why we said, let’s identify the best companies, revisit their business models, make sure they have a solid team, and accelerate them.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.