How Two Startups Are Bringing New Sustainable Materials to Market

Dec 21, 2022

Find out how two companies in our Sustainable Solutions Collaborative are creating climate-friendly alternatives to concrete and plastic.

Key Takeaways

  • Concrete and plastic production create a large share of global greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Two startups supported by the Morgan Stanley Institute for Sustainable Investing, Notpla and CarbonBuilt, have reinvented these materials through innovative design and engineering.
  • They’re proving that sustainable substitutes can meet consumer demands for performance and price.

Concrete and plastics are two of the most ubiquitous manufactured materials on Earth. They are also two of the most unsustainable, polluting landscapes and waterways and emitting greenhouse gases that intensify climate change. In fact, cement production, essential to the making of concrete, is the largest single industrial emitter of CO₂, accounting for approximately 8% of global CO₂ emissions;1 plastics manufacturing makes up another 3.4%.2

Cement production is the largest single industrial emitter of CO₂, accounting for approximately 8% of global CO₂ emissions.

Working to find innovative, scalable solutions to these problems are two early-stage companies redesigning the plastics and concrete industries from the molecule up. Notpla, a UK-based startup and one of this year’s Earthshot Prize winners,3 is making packaging solutions from seaweed and plants, replacing single-use plastic with materials that naturally biodegrade. CarbonBuilt, a startup from Los Angeles, California, is delivering low-carbon concrete by reducing the use of carbon intensive cement inputs and mineralizing atmospheric CO2 created from the manufacturing process.


They are two of the five organizations supported by the 2022 Morgan Stanley Sustainable Solutions Collaborative, which identifies and helps scale breakthrough sustainability innovations through financial support and collaboration with both the firm’s Institute for Sustainable Investing and its expansive network.

“Plastic is a low-cost material that carries 90% of its true cost at its end of life. That’s a mortgage to be paid by future generations.”
Co-Founder and Co-CEO, Notpla

Creating Sustainable Materials

“There are many good uses of plastic, but single-use isn’t one of them,” said Notpla Co-Founder and Co-CEO Pierre Paslier, who spoke recently at the Morgan Stanley Sustainable Investing Summit. “Plastic is a low-cost material that carries 90% of its true cost at its end of life,” he said, referring to short time periods in which many plastic products are used and then quickly discarded as waste that pollutes the environment. Nearly two-thirds of that waste comes from plastic products less than five years old, and just 9% is recycled.4 “That’s a mortgage to be paid by future generations.”


Searching for a solution to the plastic waste crisis, Paslier and his co-founder Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez looked to an unlikely alternative: seaweed. According to Paslier, seaweed grows fast, does not require fresh water or fertilizer and can sequester up to 20 times more carbon per acre than land forests.5 More importantly, it’s been around for millions of years, meaning nature knows how to break it down. By extracting the gelatin from seaweed, Notpla is transforming packaging for products people use every day. Take, for example, the commonly used single-use food container. While the plastic options are unrecyclable and come with obvious environmental impacts, even the ones made of paper often have a thin layer of film plastic to prevent leaks, making them unrecyclable as well. In response, Notpla invented a biodegradable plastic-like coating alternative. Similarly, to replace plastic water bottles at music or sporting events, Notpla made edible bubbles that can contain a variety of liquids.


Meanwhile, to reduce concrete’s carbon footprint, CarbonBuilt uses calcium-rich industrial waste materials to replace Portland cement—the traditional binder that holds gravel and sand together and is responsible for more than 90% of concrete’s CO₂ emissions. Through the company’s alternative process technology, the binder materials react with CO₂  derived from the atmosphere through Direct Air Capture systems or waste biomass to deliver the required strength, while permanently removing and storing CO₂. CarbonBuilt’s approach reduces CO₂ emissions by 70% to even over 100% compared with traditional concrete, according toaccording to CEO Rahul Shendure, who also spoke at the Summit. In 2020, CarbonBuilt produced more than 10,000 low-carbon concrete blocks using the CO₂ in flue gas taken from a coal power plant at the Wyoming Integrated Test Center.

Bringing Scalable Solutions to Market

Of course, inventing a new material is one thing; getting consumers to use it at scale is another. For Paslier and Gonzalez, their biggest challenge is persuading companies that Notpla’s materials are durable enough. “The specs of plastic are very much around performance, and all of its properties fly in the face of biodegradability,” Paslier said. “For single-use applications, we need materials that are in sync with that.”


But they also hope to convince companies that sustainable packaging can help them better align with consumers’ values. Most consumers in the U.S. and Europe said they were dissatisfied with the amount of plastic food packaging waste they have at home and that restaurants and grocery stores should step up efforts to reduce plastic packaging and utensils, according to a Footprint study earlier this year.6 “Most feel quite guilty about all the packaging they are throwing away as soon is something is opened and consumed,” Paslier said. Government regulations in some countries are also aiding the transition to plastic alternatives; last year, the EU enacted a ban of single-use plastic plates, cutlery, straws, balloon sticks and cotton buds.7


While durability is the gold standard for plastics, concrete needs to demonstrate that it’s both durable and strong. And the most common question Shendure says he gets from prospective customers is: “When you take out cement and replace it, is it as strong as what we need?” To help answer that concern, CarbonBuilt voluntarily submits its products to third-party labs that test for compliance with industry-accepted specifications. The company is using those standards to create the strongest and most cost-optimal solutions, he said.


And then there’s price. Will consumers opt for a sustainable material if it means the cost of the product is too high above market? Paslier says that because seaweed is renewable, it can offer affordable solutions. Still, he believes Notpla can attain mass adoption and significantly replace single-use plastic without necessarily winning the price war, because of the growing “moral imperative” to reduce pollution, not to mention the health concerns of ingesting microplastics that enter the food chain from packaging waste or other sources. One recent study found that people consume five grams of plastic—equivalent to the weight of a credit card—per week.8

More Insights

Discover thought leadership from the firm's Institute for Sustainable Investing and more about the Sustainable Solutions Collaborative.