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UK start-up behind algae-based packaging bids for Earthshot glory

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UK start-up Notpla makes naturally degrading -- and even edible -- packaging from seaweed and other marine plants
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A British start-up founded by two ex-students from France and Spain, crafting biodegradable packaging from marine plants, is aiming to seal royal approval this week when Prince William unveils his latest Earthshot prizes.

Notpla — whose mantra is “we make packaging disappear” — is competing with 14 other firms for five prestigious awards, to be dished out by the prince and a star-studded cast at a ceremony in US city Boston on Friday.

In its second year, the initiative to reward innovative efforts to combat climate change will then be broadcast on UK and US television on Sunday and Monday, respectively, as well as online.

The five winners will each receive a £1 million ($1.2 million) grant. 

The co-creator of Notpla, which rather than using environmentally damaging plastics makes various naturally degrading — and even edible — packaging from seaweed and other marine plants, says they have already felt the competition’s benefits.

“Just being there is a massive boost to our visibility,” French co-founder Pierre Paslier, 35, told AFP.

“So that’s already a huge asset to be part of the finalists and I think that if we win, it’s just going to be that on a much larger scale.”

Together with fellow former Royal College of Art student and co-founder Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez, 38, the duo began their eco-business adventure in a small London kitchen. 

They were intent on finding natural alternatives to petrochemicals-based packaging, sampling a variety of materials from tapioca seeds to other starches. 

– Seaweed ‘family’ –

“Eventually, we found seaweed,” explained Paslier, a former packaging engineer at French cosmetics giant L’Oreal who created Notpla with Gonzalez in 2014. 

“Now we have a flexible film, we make seaweed paper, we have rigid materials. So it’s really the beginning of a family of seaweed-based technologies that hopefully can help us stop using so much plastic.”

He said their early kitchen exploits had eventually led to the secretly-formulated “Ooho” creation.

An edible bubble membrane made from seaweed — holding water, sports drinks or other flavoured liquids including cocktails and sauces — it is marketed as a replacement for single-use plastic cups, bottles and sachets. 

Tasting like a gelatinous candy, it can be consumed whole — like a cherry tomato — or from a larger sachet, making it ideal at sporting events and festivals.

It has been widely used at marathons across the UK, including the 2019 London run.

Viral online interest has helped attract the attention of investors, with Notpla expanding rapidly to boast more than 60 employees and finding itself on the verge of manufacturing its products on an industrial scale.

Production of “Ooho” takes place at the firm’s offices in a large warehouse, a stone’s throw from the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in east London. 

Notpla’s growing young team also has laboratories there as it continues to develop new algae-based products.

– ‘Very renewable’ –

Among the more recent results: a naturally biodegradable coating protecting takeaway food boxes from grease and liquids. 

The company now supplies industry giant Just Eat in Britain and five other European countries. 

It also provided the packaging for all the food sold during the final of the women’s European football championships at London’s Wembley Stadium in July. 

Another of its new innovations is a transparent package for dry goods, such as pasta. 

Paslier noted that although his products may currently cost more than plastic alternatives, the latter’s sales price fails to account for “the impact on societal ecosystems, health for humans or for marine life”.

“This is basically going to be paid for [by] the next generations and that doesn’t come into the price of plastic that you buy on the market today,” he added.

“So what we want is to be the most affordable, sustainable packaging solution that takes into account its whole lifetime costs.”

Paslier believes seaweed can become the most affordable packaging option, in large part due to its fast growth rate which can top one metre (3.3 feet) a day in the lab.

“It’s a very, very renewable resource,” he added, noting it doesn’t require any fresh water or fertilisers.

Its emergence is undoubtedly timely.

A recent OECD report found, at the current rate, worldwide plastic waste will triple by 2060 to one billion tonnes per year, much of which will pollute the oceans and threaten many species. 

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Meta ‘supreme court’ takes on cases of deepfake porn

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Meta's independent oversight board can make recommendations regarding the social media giant's deepfake porn policies but it is up to the tech firm to actually make any changes
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Meta’s oversight board said Tuesday it is scrutinizing the social media titan’s deepfake porn policies, through the lens of two cases.

The move by what is referred to as a Meta “supreme court” for content moderation disputes comes just months after the widespread sharing of lewd AI-generated images of megastar Taylor Swift on X, formerly Twitter.

The Meta board picked its two cases, regarding images shared on Instagram and Facebook, to “assess whether Meta’s policies and its enforcement practices are effective at addressing explicit AI-generated imagery,” it said in the release.

The board can make recommendations regarding the social media giant’s deepfake porn policies but it is up to the tech firm to actually make any changes.

The first case taken up by the Meta Oversight Board involves an AI-generated image of a nude woman posted on Instagram.

The woman pictured resembled a public figure in India, sparking complaints from users in that country.

Meta left the image up, later saying it did so in error, the board said.

The second case involves a picture posted to a Facebook group devoted to AI creations.

That image depicted a nude woman resembling “an American public figure” with a man groping one of her breasts, the board said in a release.

The board did not name the woman, who it said was identified in a caption on the synthetic image at issue.

Meta removed the image for violating its harassment policy, and the user who posted the content appealed the decision, according to the board.

People were invited to submit comment, particularly on the gravity of harms posed by deepfake pornography and the harm it does to women who are public figures.

Deepfake porn images of celebrities are not new, but activists and regulators are worried that easy-to-use tools employing generative AI will create an uncontrollable flood of toxic or harmful content.

The targeting of Swift, one of the world’s top-streamed artists whose latest concert tour propelled her to the top of American fame, shined a spotlight on the phenomenon, with her legions of fans outraged at the development.

“It is alarming,” said White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, when asked about the images at the time.

“Sadly we know that lack of enforcement (by the tech platforms) disproportionately impacts women and they also impact girls who are the overwhelming targets of online harassment,” Jean-Pierre added.

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Samsung returns to top of the smartphone market: industry tracker

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Smartphone market tracker International Data Corporation expects Samsung and Apple will continue to dominate when it comes to high-end smartphones but that pressure will increase from Chinese rivals making more budget priced handsets
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Samsung regained its position as the top smartphone seller, wresting back the lead from Apple as Chinese rivals close the gap on both market leaders, industry tracker International Data Corporation (IDC) reported Monday.

South Korea-based Samsung overtook Apple as worldwide smartphone shipments grew nearly 8 percent in the first quarter of this year to 289.4 million, IDC said, citing its preliminary data.

It was the third consecutive quarter of growth in the global smartphone market, signalling that a recovery from a slump in the sector is underway, according to IDC.

IDC Worldwide Mobility and Consumer Device Trackers team vice president Ryan Reith expected top smartphone companies to gain share and small brands to struggle for position as recovery progresses.

Samsung shipped 60.1 million smartphones in the first quarter of this year, claiming nearly 21 percent of the market, according to IDC figures.

Apple shipped 50.1 million iPhones, garnering just over 17 percent of the market in the same period, IDC reported.

Apple smartphone shipments were down 9.6 percent in a quarter-over-quarter comparison, while Samsung shipments slipped less than one percent, according to the market tracker.

Meanwhile, China-based Xiaomi saw shipments grow about 33 percent to 40.8 million and Transsion about 85 percent to 28.5 million, taking third and fourth positions in the overall smartphone market, IDC reported.

“While Apple managed to capture the top spot at the end of 2023, Samsung successfully reasserted itself as the leading smartphone provider in the first quarter,” Reith said.

IDC expects Samsung and Apple to maintain their hold on the high end of the smartphone market while Chinese competitors seek to expand sales, according to Reith.

Nabila Popal, research director with IDC’s Worldwide Tracker team, said: “There is a shift in power among the Top 5 companies, which will likely continue as market players adjust their strategies in a post-recovery world.

“Xiaomi is coming back strong from the large declines experienced over the past two years and Transsion is becoming a stable presence in the Top 5 with aggressive growth in international markets.”

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Hong Kong conditionally approves first bitcoin and ether ETFs

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Hong Kong's securities regulator granted conditional approval for city's first spot-bitcoin and ether exchange traded funds
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Hong Kong’s securities regulator on Monday granted conditional approval to start the city’s first spot-bitcoin and ether exchange-traded funds (ETFs), firms involved said, positioning it as a leader in Asia for the use of cryptocurrencies as investment tools.

ChinaAMC (HK), the city’s unit of China Asset Management, said in a statement it had received regulatory approval from Hong Kong’s Securities and Futures Commission of Hong Kong (SFC) for the provision of virtual asset management services.

The company is “actively deploying resources in the development of spot Bitcoin ETF and spot Ethereum ETF”, it said. 

This will be done in partnership with BOCI-Prudential Trustee Limited, a joint venture of the fund management arm of Bank of China (HK) and the British multinational insurance firm.

Two other fund managers — the Hong Kong units of Harvest Fund Management and Bosera Asset Management — also said they had received conditional approvals from the SFC, Bloomberg reported.

The SFC declined to comment on individual applications.

OSL Digital Securities will provide custody services to China AMC and Harvest to ensure trading safety, the licensed digital assets platform announced Monday. 

“This collaboration marks a critical advancement in the financial landscape of the region, heralding a new chapter in digital asset investments,” OSL said in a statement. 

Hong Kong has been trying to edge ahead as a regional digital asset hub as its international financial centre status has been dented by political turmoil in recent years and China’s economic downturn.

The latest move came three months after the United States gave the green light to ETFs pegged to bitcoin’s spot price, making it easier for mainstream investors to add the unit to their portfolio.

Hong Kong is also widely considered an experimental field for including cryptocurrencies as mainstream investment tools — which are banned in mainland China.

“The financial hub is looking to establish itself as a competitor in the space competing with Dubai and Singapore as regulators open up crypto markets to institutional demand,” said James Harte, an analyst from Tickmill. 

He added that Bitcoin futures were down “around 7 percent at the lows of the day before sentiment reversed on” Hong Kong’s news. 

Last December, the city’s SFC said it was ready to allow retail investors to buy funds that are 100 percent invested in some of the digital assets, triggering the first wave of applications from fund managers. 

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