Marco Labs Episode 1: How Julia Marsh of Sway is replacing single-use plastics with seaweed

Seaweed is the new single-use plastic.

Sharing our first-ever Marco Labs episode! For our inaugural episode, we’re talking to Julia Marsh of Sway. Sway is building a solution to single-use plastics by creating a compostable seaweed-based alternative. Sway CEO and co-founder Julia has been consulting with Marco on design, and has an incredible business of her own that we’re proud to shine a light on.

Sway_Bag Challenge_Press 2

Key takeaways

  • Design thinking can help disrupt the most stagnant industries
  • We have to rethink how we create waste to build a sustainable way of living
  • You can do good while doing good
  • There are many types of communities, and community can be a way to unlock building your business


Rather read than watch? 

We’ve included a transcript of this episode below.


Hey everyone. This is the first Marco lab episode, quick intro. I am Suman SIBO, CEO, and co-founder of Marco. We are an experiences company that basically finds amazing hosts, amazing creators, and allows companies and teams to book them and enjoy those experiences. And so we're really passionate about a couple of things.

One of them is this notion of the creator economy, which is this phrase coined by an investor as well as a creator. People talk about how we're in the age of creators with, you know, platforms like clubhouse and Patrion, and the democratization of kind of access to really interesting people who are passionate about craft.

So like what does even a creator mean? They come to me, like all shapes and sizes. It can be someone who is pursuing their passion. Building something from scratch. And that could be anything from a blog to an ice cream company, to a food company, to, in Julia's case, a seaweed company. And so for me, it's been super refreshing coming from a finance background and being on the other side of the table where I meet a bunch of entrepreneurs who are doing interesting things and give them capital to.

Transitioning to those on the table and being on the more creative side. So kind of doing my best to be a creator while creating Marco, uh, which has been super inspirational, inspirational, but really the most amazing thing is, uh, an energizing is talking to other creators and kind of like convincing them to join our platform.

What we're doing here is, we've heard so many interesting stories from creators and we were like, well, we should probably share this with people because it's super interesting. I would feel selfish if we just kind of kept that knowledge to ourselves. And so, that’s what we're trying to achieve with Marco.

One — tell the story of these creators and share why their experiences are important, kind of what they're passionate about, and why they do what they do. And what does being a creator mean to them? What does building a community around what they're passionate about mean to them? 

So that's kind of what we're here for and super excited to talk to Julia, because not only is she building her own company, but also she's helped with Marco. So there's like a dual purpose here. So with that, I'd love to just, I mean, I know you Julia, but just for the audience, kind of, who are you? What's your background? You're a designer. You're a foreigner. You're a lot of things. And then what, like, we can talk about Sway in a second, but just like who is, who is Julia?


Who is she? I don't know! Let's dive in. Important to note up at the top that you're spending a valuable hour of your birthday to talk about seaweed. So I appreciate that a lot. I'm a designer and specifically a packaging and brand designer by trade. I've spent a good chunk of my life building design systems for consumer goods companies and design studios and technology companies. Really trying to bring delight to places that need it.And also try to bring a little bit of empathy to the world. So that's how most of my design decisions have been led and that comes from my upbringing. 

I was raised in Carmel, California, just a couple of hours south from where I am right now, spent a lot of time in the forest. A lot of time in the ocean, really appreciating nature. Yes. In the ocean a lot of time and tide pools, a lot of time hiking. So yeah, the reason that I'm here talking to you today, and the reason we'll get into some of what we're building at Sway is just that I've been an environmentalist and sort of an amateur naturalist my whole life.

And when that identity came into odds with my profession. That's how Sway was born.


Amazing. So I will admit when I first — so my co-founder Nick, who's actually sitting kind of right over there — I remember he was like, oh, I know this person named Julia, she's super talented.

And I went and I like creeped online and I watched the whole thing, the 45 minute video of you talking about Sway and why you started it. So Sway is, you know, a business that is replacing single-use plastics. It's born out of a kind of passion — your passion. I'd love to hear kind of the story of how you created it.

I know that there's like this epic road trip with your business partner, and we can talk about your business partner who happens to be your significant other, but how did you get started? How did you know, where are you right now?


Well, I mean so in my role as a designer and building packaging systems for big companies, oftentimes the challenge is that you want something that looks absolutely gorgeous, that's completely affordable, readily available, easy to use. And the environmental or social impact of the material is pushed to the side.

I've had so many conversations with my peers in this space. We struggled to find materials that line up in terms of all those values, in addition to not harming the planet. And when you look at the landscape of packaging that's available right now, there's a lot of misinformation and greenwashing and distrust. You got, you know, stuff made from corn and stuff made from bacteria and stuff made from sugar cane.

And you don't know what to trust. I really enjoyed the diving in deep into all of these materials, understanding their deficits, diving into reusable systems, into packaging-free solutions, talking with heads of packaging and procurement at Target and Unilever and all sorts of big brands to see what they were doing and learned that really what we need to adopt in order to inform radical change is regenerative materials.

So materials that aren't just slightly better or sustaining things the way that they are, but are actually improving and bringing extra value at every step of the value chain.


So you just mentioned regenerative materials, right. To the non-educated, what does that mean? Like, what is, what are the regenerative materials? How are you creating them?


It is not a lack of education. It's a completely new term and it's a completely new wave of materials that's coming. So there's sort of this, you know, we're seeing a revolution around energy, the way that we grow our food, the way that we dress ourselves and the way we build our homes. All of these sorts of sustainable revelations are happening right now, but it's happening in packaging as well. 

So we at Sway coined this term, regenerative materials — benevolent materials, basically. Stuff that does more for the planet than it takes. So some great stuff, samples of regenerative materials are derived from my mycelium, which is mushrooms. There's an amazing wave of mushroom-based packaging that essentially grows by itself, requires very little input, and composts back into healthy soil.

Another example is agricultural. Beer waste is actually a great input for different types of packaging. You can use it to replace flexible films and even paper. Another example would be seaweed. So that's how I really landed on seaweed as being this game changer. Input because when you cultivate seaweed, you're sequestering an insane amount of carbon, like 20 times more carbon than trees.

It grows 20 to 30 times faster than other bio-based inputs for packaging like corn or sugar cane. You don't need land to grow it. You don't need fresh water or fertilizer or pesticides or anything really. You just need healthy ocean water. And it grows. So that's the definition of a regenerative material.

It wants to grow and it's growing quickly, and it's also providing ecological services. It's sequestering carbon, mitigating ocean acidity, and providing work opportunities to coastal communities that have been affected by overfishing.


Amazing. So speaking of communities, I've seen the imagery and videos of this epic kind of journey that you took down the coast.

I'd love to hear and have you share a little bit about that. Cause, my impression is you met a bunch of unions. You talked to these people who are growing seaweed, not only in California, but all the way down in South America.


Yeah! See, why weren't you on that trip? You could have cooked us breakfast every morning. Yeah, so we decided that my co-founder Matt, who is also my significant other, we really wanted to understand seaweed cultivation at a micro level and get in the water with farmers and understand, you know, are the rumors true or is this all just some hype coming from the sustainability community.

So we packed up the truck and we drove from San Francisco all the way down to Peru, visiting seaweed farms and farmers and biomaterial innovators and coastal communities that really, really benefit from new economies and the blue economy, which is this rapidly expanding space where we're going to see a lot of investment soon.

So, not just in seaweed, but in different types of aquaculture, the more work opportunities that we can bring to those communities the better, because right now there's a huge problem with overfishing. So seaweed specifically is a great alternative to fishing and it lasts all year long, and you can use seaweed for all different kinds of things — food, you can mix it into beauty products to make it thicker, you can turn it into a biofuel and you can also use it to make bioplastics. 

So we made this epic trip, we traveled through all of Central America through Columbia, Ecuador and Peru, and then COVID hit. So we were sent back.


Yes, you'll have to continue that trip, my understanding because you still have a van down there.


The truck is parked at a friend's house in Lima. And the ultimate goal is to get all the way down to the very tip, the Southernmost tip of South America. There's a ton of seaweed that grows in Chile, and we really want to see it.

So eventually we will finish that trip. So it sounds like you can still join for the second half of that trip. Not all is lost, you could join on a motorcycle, cause that would be fun. We could do little aside. We can put Chris in those carriages next.

You're starting to see this amazing seed company, that's extremely mission driven.


In my mind you're a creator. Right? So what, what does that mean to you? Like what does being kind of a founder creating something from scratch mean to you? Like, what is your creative outlet? How do you find inspiration?


Yeah, I mean, so I didn't expect to find myself in a founder or a CEO position. I'm trained to be a designer. And really the biggest adaptation that's happened over the past couple of years is realizing that designers are, and creators in general, are especially equipped to solve large problems because they can make the impossible visible for others.

So the way that I look at my role in trying to tackle a problem, that's so large that it literally affects every person on earth. The plastic problem is enormous. I really try to look at it as a design challenge and how we can design a system that is so visible to people and so exciting and beautiful, that of course they're going to want to partake in it.

That's actually why I've been able to grow my team with no funding. So, we're raising our first round right now. But up until this point, we've been entirely self-funded and my entire team of 10 people has wanted to be a part of this company because they believe in the future. And basically the picture that I've painted for them.


Yeah! I mean, I certainly believe in it, as you know, but in terms of the enormity of the problem, right? Like why should we care? I mean, we kind of all intuitively know it’s a problem, like I just got like a bunch of things from Amazon sitting here, one of which was this, this microphone. But how big of a problem is it?


I mean, there are lots of reasons to care about the plastic problem.

And I think that a lot of them are very tiring and people get fatigued and don't want to talk about it. So as succinctly as possible, I can say we're specifically focused on the materials — the thin film plastics that are impossible to recycle that can't be replaced with reusable solutions. And that specifically is poly bags, like the ones that you got in the mail, poly mailers, like the Amazon mailers. That's a great example. And air pillows, like this thing, they’re super annoying and super pervasive. And then ultimately more complex packaging, like a Snickers bar wrapper or a Cliff wrapper or something like that.

So really these annoying, sneaky plastics actually make up a huge portion of the waste that's produced every year. 46% of all plastic waste that ends up in the ocean is one of these thin film plastics. And we produce 160 million tons of them. So the reason that you should care is there's a lot of this material, and it usually has a lifespan of about 12 seconds.

It can't be recycled, which means that it floats out of landfills into the ocean, but it also floats in its cities and it clogs up sewers. And the average person eats literally a credit card worth of plastic every single week through plastics that make their way into the food and the air that we breathe.

There's a lot of reasons to care, but it's a health issue. It's not just an ocean issue, it's everywhere. It'd be great if instead we could redesign this material to restore and replenish the planet.


So one thing that we think a lot about at Marco, which you obviously know through working at Marco is the concept of community. And I think communities can show up in different ways for us. It's the community of creators and hosts the community, people at work. I know that you are kind of very plugged into the sustainability community. You've worked with different brands. 

Like how do you think about that? I'm just thinking of the community of people who would use your product, right? Like what does the word community mean to you?


With any movement, you need a lot of collaboration, I think in order to succeed.

So to me, community is collaboration with a movement, as massive as this benevolent materials revolution that I'm talking about. You need the folks that are running major brands to be collaborating with the folks who are righting waste infrastructure. And those folks need to be collaborating with, you know, the average person to educate them about how they can participate in this new future that they're building.

So I think it requires a lot of communication. And then also a lot of tools that people can use to feel like they are a part of the movement and generally the go-to strategy that we like to use at Sway is that. Motivated people motivate other people. So when we talk about massive climate issues, or when we talk about the plastic problem, we're not trying to focus on the doom and gloom and you know, the inevitable destruction of the planet.

Instead we're talking about — look at all these incredible solutions, not just ours, but all the adjacent solutions that are happening in the space and how we can all collaborate together to make those solutions a reality. And my favorite kinds of solutions are those that benefit every single section of the climate challenge, because it's super intersectional.

It's not just the environment, it's people, it's business. And a lot of the solutions can be super intersectional. So in our case, we see how the plastic problem feeds into the climate challenges, climate challenges, feed, social inequity, social inequity feeds the plastic problem. We have the opportunity with seaweed to solve a bunch of those problems simultaneously because we're eliminating plastics.

And then through the cultivation of seaweed, we're sequestering, carbon, and mitigating ocean acidity. We're also delivering a material that not only provides employment, but enables the average person to be a conscious consumer. So when they're using this material, they can read something like, this bag is sequestered X amount of carbon.

And at the end of its life, you can mix it in with your food scraps and it's going to decompose into healthy soil. Like that's such a cool thing for the average person to experience, because suddenly we've given them a tool to be a part of the bigger movement. 

It's super interesting to me because you think about normally, like, I don't know what made this, right? Like this piece of plastic, right? Like there's no, there's no mission behind it. Obviously it sounds like a utility, but it sounds like you're doing quite the opposite. You're like — hey, you should know about this. And there's a supply chain that does this, but your approach is just super different.

It seems to me like the industrial system makes most of this stuff… yeah, it's a question that we get a lot, which is, you know, packaging is such a commodity business and yeah, no, I don't know who made this. Well I mean I do! But most people do not know this and nor do they care and why would they? It's an inconvenience when you get this stuff in a box, in a shipment from wherever.

I think it's such a cool opportunity to bring people in and give them information. We're seeing calls for transparency and traceability within clothing, within food, and we're starting to see that emerging. 

We're seeing systems for tracking the carbon footprint of a shoe, like that recent campaign we just saw from Adidas and Allbirds. That's super cool. That's a great example of collaboration putting aside competition and saying, this is really important. People should be paying attention to it. So I think the opportunities are limitless, but when you give people information, they're more likely to trust you. And especially when the pitfalls of greenwashing are so pervasive.

So giving people the tools to say, who's the farmer who made your bag, something that you might not attribute value to can change the conversation. I think it's this concept of information sharing. And to me it's just like storytelling, right? 


I'm going to want to do this because I've heard your story. And not just because of you know, she's charismatic and says this matters, but like there's something communicating the reason behind it, how I think is super, super important. So I guess, like what makes you different within your industry? But also like the plastics, your competitors, but like other folks, you mentioned mushrooms, other folks that are tackling the space.


No. I mean, so that's the great thing about it. And, and kind of when you mentioned community, in the biomaterial space, people are friends with each other. We all like each other. We're all rooting for each other to succeed. We talk to each other all the time, you know, how are you tackling this? How are you going to get over this hurdle?

So, yeah, there is no silver bullet. There's a lot of solutions that need to be implemented. And that's the awesome thing about it is like we can create a regenerative future because there are all these solutions already just waiting to be implemented and adopted. But there are other, you know, materials that are trying to compete with what we're building.

Notably, those are the corn and sugar cane based plastics that I was referring to earlier — PLA. It's like the most pervasive replacement, something like this is made from PLA. And it's also, man, I don't know if we can say this on the air, but this is like 40 to 80% petroleum-based plastic.

So, that's the problem and challenge in the packaging world is that this is labeled as compostable, but it can contain anywhere from 40 to 80% petroleum-based inputs. So the average person's going to say, wow, that's so cool. It's made from plants, but it's not really!

I don't like to talk poorly about anyone, but that’s some of what we're dealing with — a lot of misinformation. So when you give the average person the tools to screen the materials that they interact with, just like how you would screen your clothing. You most likely don't want to be wearing synthetic materials, you want to avoid virgin fibers, if you can work with recycled materials, that's way better. 

So there are certain criteria that we can look at. And in the case of packaging, you want to choose materials that are a hundred percent bio-based and 100% compostable. There's no such thing as partially compostable; it's either a yes or no situation.

Then you want to be working with materials that are ideally sourced from a renewable resource. So corn is like a monocrop that takes up a huge amount of space and it is otherwise a food source. So if you can work with a novel material like seaweed, or some of our competitors in the space derive their cellulose from trees, that's the best case scenario.


What is your favorite type of seaweed?


There's this beautiful seaweed that you should look at! I should have a little picture. It's called Grinnell's pink leaf and it's so lovely. It looks like a beautiful pink ribbon and it's named Grinell, which just sounds like a storybook. Maybe you like, I could get that as a gift for someone like us. I'll have to figure out what that is.


That is amazing too. As we, as we close it off here, what's next for Sway? You kind of alluded to some fundraising, some growing the team on the horizon.


We're wrapping up a pre-seed round right now, I’m really excited to share that news once it's all done and finished, and then we're racing towards pilots this year. So you're going to see Sway material readily available. 

We're building out the team, although I really love the team we've already built, got some superstars, really great attitude. They all love the outdoors, just as much as Matt and I do, which is awesome. Yeah. And we got some really cool brands that we're working with. So I'm excited to share that publicly some really like-minded organizations that are saying, we hear the call, we're ready to adopt a totally new material.

We know that people want to see something new and refreshing and you know, let's make it happen. So yes, the series is going to be a total roller coaster ride, but I'm super excited.


Amazing. Super excited for you. I think it's super challenging. We talk, it's funny. We talk about work and then you helped me be like, Hey, can we just talk about like, this is the heart, right?

So part of it is that everything is super hard. So it's admirable. It's funny, I'm sitting here,  this is our first kind of test run, but I’ve used it as an excuse to record your story and hopefully share it. So thank you for talking a bit with me and with the Marco fam here about Sway, super excited for what you're doing.

I think it's really important, but I'm happy to be here now. You can call me anytime. I know I will. You actually have a great rest of the week and catch everyone here on the next episode. Cheers!

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