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How this former robot pizza unicorn reinvented itself around sustainable packaging

Zume was the darling of fast food automation until it nearly went bust. Now the brand is disrupting packaging.
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Written by Greg Nichols, Contributor on
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Worker inspects sustainable packaging.

Zume

A fleet of robots and some fancy sustainable material may point the way to solving a vexing problem: How to reduce harmful single-use packaging materials, which include not just plastics and polystyrene but also chemicals used to line cardboard packaging.

The company in question is Zume, and you might remember the name from its first life as a pizza-making robotics firm once valued in the billions. After trying to scale its end to end automated pizza business too quickly, the Softbank-backed brand pivoted went through major layoffs and then pivoted to sustainable packaging. With a breakthrough partnership with global robotics leader ABB, as well as a new partnership with Solenis, a leading global producer of speciality chemicals, Zume is launching a line of 100% PFAS-free compostable packaging for the food packaging industry, capping off a major brand reinvention.

Why is this important? Ever looked closely at the inside of a cardboard takeout box? That sheen keeping your lo mein from soaking into the cardboard is most likely PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), widely used chemicals commonly found in sustainable food packaging. These toxic chemicals bind to proteins in the soil, transmit up the food chain and have been linked to a slew of health risks.

"Until now, an economically viable solution for brands to transition from plastic and foam packaging hasn't been available," said Zume CEO and Chairman Alex Garden. "Our patented molded fiber manufacturing equipment system and technology enable us to offer sustainable packaging at the same price or less than plastic. This partnership with Solenis advances efforts to eliminate single-use plastic and enables brands to keep commitments to stop using PFAS."

Also: Robot fry cook gets job at 100 White Castle locations

Zume and Solenis have been working together to innovate molded fiber solutions to replace entire categories of single-use plastic without harmful chemicals. Part of the breakthrough here is a robotics-enabled manufacturing process, something that's given single-use plastics manufacturers a leg up when it comes to pricing single-use packaging. Under the terms of the new partnership, Zume will provide its advanced molded fiber manufacturing capabilities and professional services, and Solenis will supply expertise in functional additives and surface coatings to increase the strength and functionality of Zume's fiber recipes making them adequate for a broad array of commercial uses.

Initial products will include cups, bowls, plates, premium egg cartons, coffee cup lids, protein trays, and yogurt cups. ABB's robots will automate production and enable the scale and speed needed to make Zume's sustainable packaging.

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