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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Startups aimed at reducing household waste have previously lacked the kind of mass consumer backing and potential for scale that investors like to see. That’s changing now.

Why it matters: Consumers produce waste — plastics, packaging and food — at nearly every moment of the day, from the bag that holds new bed sheets to the sugar packets with a dinner espresso.

Most plastics, produced from fossil fuels, aren’t recycled and don’t decompose. Organic waste in landfills releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas that warms the atmosphere more than 80 times as much as carbon dioxide.

The big picture: The pandemic has led to more household trash, but also more consumer awareness of their contributions to the world's trash problem.

  • Startups like Zero Grocery and Blueland, which provide food and home goods in returnable or reusable containers, have benefited.
  • Zero Grocery’s 2020 revenue (from the start of February to the end of December) grew 3,400%, according to founder and CEO Zuleyka Strasner.
  • Blueland sales increased 800% last year, Business Insider reported.

Yes, but: Plastics and waste solutions need scale to attract investors and achieve real environmental impact, Chuck Templeton, managing director at S2G Ventures, tells Axios.

  • "You look at packaging companies — they’ve been successful over time because they’ve been able to get to scale with [plastics]," he said.
  • The other "part of it is going to be legislation," like cities banning plastic bags, and "pure economic pressure from consumers," says Ramy Adeeb, founder and general partner at 1984 Ventures, which led Zero's pre-seed round.

That public pressure is here. The current "cultural zeitgeist doesn’t want plastic," Ecovative CEO and co-founder Eben Bayer tells Axios.

  • Ecovative, fresh off of $70 million in funding, has been profitable in manufacturing products made from mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms. It licenses its technology to, or partners with, companies that want sustainable whole-cut proteins, home compostable packaging and even leather-like materials. 
  • Ecovative’s open model means it can distribute its manufacturing platform widely, achieving the kind of scale that would make it the “equivalent of a Dow [or] DuPont of mycelium,” Bayer says.

Businesses that shift their operations are benefiting too, as Too Good To Go's model is starting to show.

  • With $31 million in new funding, 42.6 million users and more than 100,000 partner stores globally, the startup enables businesses to sell food to consumers that would otherwise be thrown away at the end of a day. 
  • "U.S. adoption has been the fastest," Lucie Basch, Too Good To Go co-founder and chief expansion officer, tells Axios. And the number of VCs that have reached out to the company in the past couple of years has been "quite impressive,” she adds.

Venture capitalists will remain interested if they can see a path to building a large public company around “waste plays,” Farther Farms co-founder and CEO Mike Annunziata tells Axios. 

  • The Rochester, New York-based startup, which has raised over $10 million in private capital, develops technologies to maintain the shelf life of food, like a bag of fast-food french fries for 90 days without freezing. It's now trying to apply those technologies to more products.

What to watch: “What may start as solving a waste problem can be a way to start something even bigger,” he adds, pointing to shelf-life preserver company Hazel Technologies and “ugly produce” shippers Imperfect Foods and Misfits Market as examples.

Go deeper

Charted: Soda pop bottle demand

Data: S&P Global Platts; Chart: Axios Visuals

Outsized demand for recycled plastic material has caused its prices to nearly double what they were last year, per the WSJ.

Driving new demand: The fashion industry, which has started to move toward recycled plastic-based clothing.

Updated Nov 9, 2021 - Axios Events

Watch: A conversation on sustainable transportation

On Tuesday, November 9th, Axios transportation correspondent Joann Muller explored the policies, sustainable technologies and recyclable materials spearheading electric vehicle deployment for a new mobility future, featuring Redwood Materials co-founder & CEO JB Straubel and Sen. Angus King (I-Maine).

JB Straubel highlighted the importance of sustainable materials in battery production, how battery supply chains play a crucial role in creating many of the world’s sustainable products, and the issues surrounding recycling end of life batteries.

  • On the important role of battery supply chains in spearheading sustainability: “I think now, even more than a few years ago, it’s coming into really clear focus that the supply chain around the battery in particular, is a really critical topic for sustainability and most of the products that sustainability is relying upon in their industrialization.”
  • On planning ahead for responsible large-scale battery disposal: “We have to make sure that we’re planning ahead. Planning ahead both for the supply chain scale-up that’s needed to accomplish this in a sustainable way...and also planning ahead for the end of life and making sure that we don’t have unintended or unexpected environmental impacts associated with that end of life....”

Sen. Angus King illustrated which policies will be most effective to accelerate the transition to EVs, how the U.S. can become less reliant on other countries for battery supplies, and the potential future of recycling batteries to create circular supply chains.

  • On reducing U.S. dependence on other countries’ battery supply chains: “As I say, there’s a very important national security aspect of this, and it’s a matter of stimulating and developing the domestic industry, including mining and processing.”
  • On optimism surrounding a major transition to electric vehicles in the future: “I’m optimistic. I think we’re going to develop a recycling market. I think we’re going to see more battery manufacturing here in the U.S., and I think we’re going to see far more EVs out on the road, and the climate will be all the better for it.”

Axios SVP of Events & Creative Strategy Kristin Burkhalter hosted a View from the Top segment with DuPont President of Mobility & Materials Randy Stone, who explained the plastic industry’s role in expanding sustainable transportation.

  • “The plastics industry can bring an integrated and holistic set of solutions that help the adoption of EVs, and if we do that, of course, we get much better sustainability, we get lower carbon emissions, we get better fuel efficiency...there’s a really, really important role that we play to advance this hybrid and electric vehicle trend that we see today.”

Thank you American Chemistry Council for sponsoring this event.

Biden calls Fox News reporter a "stupid son of a b---h" on hot mic

President Biden blasted Fox News' Peter Doocy on Monday after the reporter asked if the nation's soaring inflation is a political liability, saying, "what a stupid son of a b----h."

Driving the news: The Biden administration has faced rising inflation rates over recent months, which it has labeled as "transitory."