Aeropowder: The young scientists creating sustainable packaging from waste feathers

Polystyrene. It is a widely-used plastic commonly utilised as lightweight packaging, with its properties making it useful for insulation when delivering fresh food – and it can make a horrible screechy sound if you slide your finger down it. It is also derived from petroleum – a limited resource that takes hundreds of years to degrade and is incredibly difficult to recycle, making it destined to be sent to landfill, where it will exist indefinitely, unless it ends up in our oceans first.

Well, without feather ado, let’s take a look at Aeropowder, a young startup founded in 2016 who are utilising a hitherto underexplored waste stream – yes, that’s right, feathers.

Elena Dieckmann and Dr. Ryan Robinson – the co-founders of Aeropowder – were interested in the unique properties of feathers and how they could be utilised beyond their primary use. They therefore started off with the fowl – but certainly not foul – waste, but without a clear idea of how best to utilise it.

Aeropowder: The young scientists creating sustainable packaging from waste feathers
pluumo puts waste feathers to good use in creating a sustainable form of packaging.

It is undoubtedly a huge potential resource; an estimated 3.1 billion tonnes of poultry feather waste is created annually in the EU alone. However, currently, the majority of waste feathers from the poultry industry are converted into low-quality animal food by third party organisations, with little opportunity for turning them to other uses.

Undeterred, however, Aeropowder persisted with their aim to create a sustainable, useful product from the resource, and turned to the down industry. Dieckmann explains: “Pluumo started life as a research project – we tried all kinds of different things, we turned feathers into any form you can imagine. We created powders at the beginning (hence the company’s name). We then tried to inject molding and moved into house insulation for buildings.”

After running tests, however, they realised that creating a more sustainable form of thermal packaging for food deliveries could have a larger, more positive environmental impact. The UK’s recent meltdown over plastics pollution in our oceans in the wake of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet has been well-documented, and polystyrene forms a significant proportion of the plastic litter ending up in our seas.

The idea therefore was to create a sustainable, biodegradable polystyrene replacement. Many prototypes fell by the wayside as they failed to live up to Dieckmann and Robinson’s exacting environmental ambitions. Dieckmann says that after each prototype, the key questions were: “Does it make things better? What are the environmental impacts? Does this solve an existing problem?”

As they looked at creating a functioning product they were greatly helped by an early victory: “It started off with winning the Mayor of London’s Entrepreneur Award in 2016, which gave us an initial seedfund and allowed us to continue our research and professionalise the whole idea. It allowed us to do our prototyping on an industrial scale and do our testing with companies to develop our conversion process.”

Indeed, they were soon making quite a splash, without having to ruffle any feathers. Dieckmann and Robinson were featured on Forbes’ 30 under 30 Europe, while earlier this year they were finalists in the 2018 Thought for Food (TFF) Challenge.

The product they have created uses feathers’ natural properties to provide thermal insulation for temperature sensitive items, and they are currently focused on fresh food. For one box of fresh food, two pluumo liners would be used, which would enable the contents to survive overnight without spoilage.

Dieckmann explains the manufacturing process: “There are not currently many applications for feathers. We have developed a conversion process that involves washing them, the feathers are cleaned to European standard – you can actually sleep on them! And then we have a mechanical conversion process that turns them into a textile. It’s tricky to work with because it’s very light, so if you can imagine it’s very easy for it to escape! It was quite a struggle to find a machine that could actually handle such a weird fibre.”

Aeropowder: The young scientists creating sustainable packaging from waste feathers
Elena Dieckmann and Dr. Ryan Robinson

There is then a biofilm that goes over the textile in order to contain the product. Although pluumo currently does not have any formal biodegradable accreditation, Dieckmann says that it its own tests have been highly successful and that all the materials, including the biofilm, are biodegradable. The company is looking to get a biodegradable certification in the future.

While the product is nominally biodegradable, the company is very keen to promote reuse. Dieckmann explains that a takeback system is the ideal scenario. “Ideally, customers would send it back. It’s still a resource that was cleaned and prepared for use.”

While the startup is currently using surplus feathers from the down industry, it is currently having conversations with a big poultry producer, having done numerous tests with turkey and chicken feathers, and is hoping to ultimately get feathers directly from the poultry industry.

‘Go big or go home’

Pluumo was officially launched in London last month, and has sold its first units – its first customer being an organic butcher using the liners for deliveries. Initial feedback has been positive, and the product has been very well received. “It’s going very well, we just finished our first big production run. We are working with the first early adopter customers, and re-orders are already in place.”

Aeropowder’s biggest challenge now is upscaling. They are looking to extend the team – currently it is just Dieckmann and Robinson with the help of interns, and the factory where the product is made is also scaling up. They are working with all of their partners to see how best to get the project to the next level, and have their eyes on German and French markets, as well as expanding in the UK.

As well as looking for bigger distribution partners, they are looking at ways of developing the product: “A lot of customers want custom-made shapes, either for bigger deliveries or more complexly packed items. We have even had the pellet industry asking for big covers, which poses a new challenge in terms of complexity. At the moment we have just one liner in one size.”

There are other possible avenues for Aeropowder – they have talked with the automotive industry as they can press the feather textiles into bars to use on the inside of car panelling, and have done further tests in the lab, but they are focusing on packaging for the near future.

As far as the team are aware, there are no other companies using feathers in a comparable way, and with the poultry industry growing alongside our dependence on food deliveries, there is certainly a place for a sustainable product on the current market.

Dieckmann says: “If you used all the feathers in Europe, you could create five billion parcels per year, just to give you an idea of how many feathers are available. So it’s go big, or go home!”

More information about the product can be found at pluumo’s website.