Swaying the future

Seaweed is revolutionising the fight against plastic pollution. In the past decade it has gained significant traction as a viable, renewable, and even regenerative plastic alternative to petroleum.

Words by Andi Cross
Photographs by the Edges of Earth team

This resilient marine plant, thriving in harsh ocean conditions, offers the perfect properties for innovation in material science. Businesses are increasingly pivoting to seaweed-based models, utilising its strength and flexibility to produce eco-friendly products like straws, cutlery, and packaging. These advancements allow consumers to replace single-use plastics with bio-based options that perform just as well, if not better, promoting a shift towards environmentally responsible consumption.

This is exactly why our expedition team charted a course to Monterey, California, a place synonymous with marine innovation. Our goal there was to meet Julia Marsh: a pioneer in the seaweed movement. Having tracked Julia’s progress from the early days of her venture, we were drawn to her compelling vision showcased through her company’s highly engaging social media, which also showed her larger ambitions for a better future. Julia, along with her partner Matt Mayes and their dedicated team, has grown Sway from a visionary startup to a rising leader in the fight against single-use plastics, utilising seaweed to craft home compostable, aesthetic packaging solutions. This visit promised a firsthand look at how their collective efforts are helping us understand the real power of seaweed as a production material. 

Sway is transforming how we think about regenerative resources, using “materials that replenish the planet from sea to soil”. By innovating seaweed to create scalable alternatives to plastics, they are working to replicate the desirable properties of traditional plastics without harming the environment. Plastics, known for polluting ecosystems and endangering wildlife, meet a sustainable challenger in Sway’s innovations. But instead of challenging, they are looking to partner with the plastics industry, offering a new, sustainable solution that can work within existing manufacturing equipment. So, rather than fight the system, they can find ways to integrate and scale with it. Their approach addresses these environmental issues and offers a viable solution that could revolutionise materials science, reducing our dependence on harmful synthetic plastics and converting a historically destructive process into a positive one. 

Landing in California after a red-eye from Hawaii and eager to see the inner workings of the start-up Sway, we were warmly greeted by this dynamic founding team. Humble from the moment we met them, it was clear their true dedication to climate action by finding a clever plastic alternative was at the forefront of their work. Julia, as the creative force, and Matt, focusing on operations, compliment each other perfectly. From our very first glances at them, it was apparent that their collaboration demonstrates a seamless partnership  down to every detail. Julia’s eye for design shines through in every facet of the business – from their innovative seaweed-based products to her elegantly designed office. However, our experiences have taught us that while beauty is captivating, it doesn’t guarantee functionality. We’ve seen too many startups where the surface gloss masks deeper shortcomings. At Sway, we were both hopeful and curious: could their products genuinely perform as impressively as they looked? 

Fortunately, they didn’t just meet our expectations – they surpassed them, proving that beauty and function can go hand-in-hand when it comes to nature-based solutions. And, they’re beginning to capture the market with their products: TPSea™, a 100% renewable seaweed resin, which can be extruded to create TPSea Flex™, its versatile film counterpart. Sway’s home compostable TPSea Flex™ packaging material can be converted into polybags, polymailers, retail bags, wrappers, and more. This progression is notable because while many startups churn out promising ideas, few transition into scalable solutions. Conversations with Julia and Matt revealed their remarkable journey from humble beginnings to the brink of significant expansion, highlighting their potential to make a substantial impact on a larger scale.

Julia’s journey began during her decade-long career as a designer, where she became engrossed in the intricacies of materials and their impact on brand identity. Her burgeoning curiosity about merging her childhood oceanic fascination with her design expertise spurred a pivotal decision. Motivated by a core belief instilled early on, to leave the world better than she found it, Julia ventured into graduate school to delve deeper into sustainability practices.

There, Julia focused on the potential of underutilised materials within the framework of a circular economy. This exploration inspired her thesis project, ‘Sway’, aiming to establish a scalable business that mirrored these circular ideals. The name ‘Sway’ captures the essence of seaweed’s movement in the ocean, symbolising the adaptability required in creating innovative materials. Julia explains that “Sway moves in response to the rhythm of natural cycles,” highlighting the philosophy behind their approach. Unlike mechanical systems, which are rigid and static, Sway embraces a more fluid, dynamic way of thinking, mirroring the natural world’s inherent flexibility and constant change.

But it was only after she and her partner, Matt, had a chance encounter with a seaweed farmer in Indonesia that their project had its ‘eureka’ moment. After this meeting that opened their eyes, the duo developed a shared passion for studying seaweed, from its technological potential to its supply chain dynamics. They rigorously assessed its viability from multiple angles, including customer demand, business sustainability, and environmental impact throughout its lifecycle. Their comprehensive analysis confirmed the viability of seaweed as a pivotal element of their business model. Initially underrated, seaweed became their shining star: a regenerative resource with immense potential. Julia’s early experiments with seaweed, conducted in the couple’s garage from samples ordered online, quickly evolved. These experiments resulted in a promising prototype that captured the attention of the USDA, marking a significant milestone in their journey.

By 2021, Julia and Matt’s efforts started bearing fruit. They secured $2.5 million in funding, which allowed them to expand their team, transition into a dedicated lab space, and enhance their product testing. They even went on to be the first place winner of the Tom Ford Plastics Prize, which propelled them into the spotlight and facilitated partnerships with prominent brands such as Burton, J.Crew, and Florence. Recently, they further bolstered their resources with a $5 million fundraising round supported by investors focused on ocean conservation and innovation. The feedback from manufacturers has been exceptionally positive, highlighting their seaweed-based packaging materials as some of the most promising alternatives to traditional plastics.

Looking forward, Julia and Matt are setting their sights on revolutionising the industry with their new resin product, aiming to broaden their range to include bags, wrappers, and envelopes. They have ambitious plans to ramp up production to 5,000 metric tonnes over the next two years, translating to millions of feet of film and tonnes of pellets for various uses.

On the business front, they are strategising on ways to engage both businesses and consumers in the sustainability dialogue. For businesses, Sway is highlighting the urgency of transitioning to plastic alternatives that significantly reduce environmental impact. Simultaneously, they are educating consumers on the importance of supporting brands that adopt bio-based, home compostable materials into their packaging systems, emphasising that both market segments are pivotal in the broader climate conversation. 

They are also forging partnerships with organisations specifically aligned with ocean conservation and seaweed utilisation to bolster their market presence and reinforce their end goal. This dual approach is to ensure they not only introduce their products effectively into the market but also champion the broader message that consumer choices truly do matter. If more consumers are demanding that the brands they love choose more sustainable packaging options, businesses will have to adapt. It’s a two way street and Sway is sitting right in the middle. This supports a fundamental belief at Sway. In order to enact widespread change, everyone’s participation is crucial.

This sentiment is echoed by the company’s origin story, which, while somewhat accidental, was always grounded in making a significant environmental impact rather than focusing solely on financial outcomes. And for Julia and the team, the call to action is clear and urgent. The time to join the movement is right now. Even though the seaweed narrative has been running for awhile, it’s never been more focused. For this team, the iron is hot and it’s time to strike. 

It was clear throughout our time spent, this team and their plastic alternative is on a fast-track to success. But even with this rapid success, the team is still aware that they have a long way to go and a lot to learn on their path forward. Their success has, and will continue to rely heavily on collaboration and the wisdom of trusted advisors and other experts in the field. The startup journey is often as tough as anticipated—filled with moments of isolation and difficulty. But this collective has formed a strong support network that has been not only beneficial but necessary for their resilience as a new company on the scene.

Julia said that, “even the best of us aren’t free of plastics”. This perspective is core to what Sway is trying to achieve. It’s not only here to innovate in the field of circular materials but also to help us understand how our decisions can contribute to a larger, positive change. By focusing on user-centric design and impactful products, Sway aims to bridge the gap between intention and action, making sustainability an accessible choice for all right now, and in the future. 


Photographs by the Edges of Earth team

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