Humble Bee harnesses the power of nature to solve our plastice pollution problem

Hylaeus Bee photo by Veronica Harwood-Stevenson

Pollution caused by plastics is a major problem globally. In New Zealand, it is number five on the list of things we are most concerned about.

With good reason too. Our biological systems are being polluted by hormone-disrupting, gene altering and cancer-causing substances leaching from plastics that are used in the millions of tonnes per year.

Our oceans in particular are awash with toxic single-use plastic. As fish eat it, then so do we — ingesting our own throwaway culture.

None of this changes the fact that plastics are incredibly useful. If you have ever worn a raincoat, used a tent, replaced a laser printer toner, or carried something in a Tupperware container, you have used a high-performing plastic. They have become integrated into the very fabric of our everyday lives.

So, how do we go about resolving the problems they cause? The prevailing question around this problem has been — how do we as consumers stop creating and using so much toxic material?

As the founder of Humble Bee, I think that it is time to shift the conversation away from the realm of individual responsibility, and instead start solving the problem at its source — by substituting the materials that are used by industry when creating consumer products.

The SIN list

I believe the answer lies in nature.

Thanks to research undertaken by scientists working with me at Humble Bee, it is clear we can scale a superior, biologically-inspired material that will provide an alternative polymer to industry, as well as improve human health and that of the environment.

Biomimicry — applying the sophistication of nature to the world’s wicked problems

When I came across an academic article about a species of solitary bee whose nest material was described as ‘cellophane-like’, I was intrigued by the biomimicry potential. Could this material provide a viable substitute for plastic-based wrap? After sourcing some of this unique nesting material I had its properties analysed.

The bee’s material performed better than expected, displaying resistance to heat, naked flame, strong bases and acids like hydrochloric or stomach acid, and even solvents like petrol and water.

It’s potential was hugely exciting.

The result: Humble Bee was born.

With backing from Sparkbox Ventures, and Global Day One, I hired Victoria University’s Ferrier Institute. Together, we are now working very hard to identify and reverse engineer the nesting material of this bee and design a method of manufacture to produce it at a commercial scale suitable for a number of large industrial applications — from textiles to healthcare and beyond.

The cellophane-like cell lining created by our humble bee. Photo credit: James Cane

Global problem, global opportunity

Humble Bee’s product aims to replace some of the polymers clogging up the oceans and the chemicals used in plastics manufacturing, which are in the process of being banned. Or, put another way, we are working to alleviate the market pain of getting ahead of compliance, whilst maintaining product performance.

For example, three countries in the European Union — Belgium, Sweden and France — have already taken action to phase out the use of Bisphenol A (BPA), a substance widely found in plastic products, including in the lining of food cans and in dental sealants, the leaching of which has found to be harmful to animals in clinical trials. This move has also been made in Japan and Taiwan. It won’t be long until the rest of the world follows suit, and phenols are not the only substances on the regulatory chopping block.

Our bee’s material floating on water, creating an opal-like illusion. Photo credit: Veronica Harwood-Stevenson

Purpose and profit — the new business as usual

Recent news has highlighted a letter by influential CEO of investment firm BlackRock, Laurence Fink to executives indicating that: “their companies need to do more than make profits — they need to contribute to society as well if they want to receive the support of BlackRock”.

The stock markets are also increasingly paying specific attention to toxic chemicals and the multi-layered opportunity that their disruption presents, with ChemSec Senior Business and Investor Advisor Sonja Haider stating: “chemical substitution does not just offer opportunities for the investment community to make lots of money — investors can also play a large role in contributing to the elimination of hazardous chemicals from products”.

Callaghan Innovation shows its support

With follow-on financing from Sparkbox Ventures, Global Day One, K1W1, ArcAngels, IceAngels and AngelHQ this is set to be the “year of the Humble Bee”.

Do you know of anyone who would like to join Callaghan and our investors to work alongside Humble Bee as we harness the power of biomimicry to remain ahead of the regulatory curve? We would love to hear from you — veronica@humblebee.co.nz

Biotech company making new plastics inspired by a species of solitary bee.

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