There is no lack of effort globally among those who want to create more sustainable substitutes for plastic. For instance, there is the “edible cutlery” in India, where the utensils are made from sorghum flour, rice and wheat. There are also the biodegradable and compostable plastic bags made of cassava starch and vegetable oil, which can be dissolved in hot water for consumption.
In Finland, Suvi Haimi, co-founder and CEO of Sulapac Ltd, wants to tackle the problem by creating an alternative that is just as strong as plastic. Instead of using fossil fuels, a finite-resource, to create plastic that will not degrade, she and her team have invented a plastic-like material made from wood chips that is both biodegradable and microplastic free.
It was a solution born of more than a decade of research by Haimi and co-founder Laura Kyllönen, both of whom were academics in biosciences before becoming entrepreneurs. They knew back then that wood composites — when mixed with certain natural binders that can hold them together and protect them at high temperatures — are able to create structures that are strong and useful.
“I am a biochemist. In 2008, I did my PhD in medical materials. Laura was my first PhD student. We really thought that through our academic career, we could not make a huge impact and follow our vision as strongly as we could as entrepreneurs. We wanted to solve something big,” Haimi tells Enterprise during a media tour on the Circular Economy and Clean Tech in Finland.
“One day, I went to my professor and he asked me, ‘Why are you not an entrepreneur?’ He planted the seeds of entrepreneurship in me. I thought about it and when I finally decided to be an entrepreneur, I went to this professor and said, ‘Give me some money!’ So that was the start,” she says. That was in 2016.
Since then, Sulapac has attracted funding from Business Finland, a public funding agency for research in the country, as well as venture capital firms such as Thailand-based Ardent Capital and Finland-based Lifeline Ventures.
It is not plastic, it is wood
Sulapac’s first line of products targets the high-end cosmetics industry. It uses its unique material to create jars that can be used to store cosmetic creams. The company is already collaborating with a few brands, such as Finnish cosmetics company Naviter, to use its products. Last month, French luxury house Chanel became its first investor from the cosmetics industry.
“We are very heavy users of cosmetics and were wondering why there weren’t any ecological materials to replace plastic packaging. That is why we started in the cosmetic and luxury sectors. From these segments, we can really find the forerunners and lead the way to more sustainable packaging,” says Haimi.
The ideal end-of-life situation is for the Sulapac jars to end up in an industrial compost, which is available in Finland to produce energy from waste, where it will fully degrade in 21 days. But if the jar ends up in a natural environment, it is designed to decompose by itself.
“We have designed Sulapac so that wherever it ends up, it is better than plastic. If it ends up in the sea or in the soil, it biodegrades fully. If it ends up in a landfill, it biodegrades there. But if it is burnt to produce energy, it has a lower carbon dioxide footprint than plastic,” says Haimi.
The company is in the process of applying for a marine certificate to prove that when the material decomposes in a marine ecosystem, it does not interfere with it. Sulapac is able to do this because the material is made from wood and natural binders from sugar cane, for example, both of which are sustainably sourced and renewable, says Haimi.
The wood chips are usually side-stream products, which are waste from the forestry industry. The production can be done in any plastic manufacturing facility and go through injection moulding machines.
“It is almost 80% wood in the injection moulding machines. The natural binder keeps the wood together and gives it certain barrier properties against oily and dry products, for instance. When we have water-containing products in the jar, we have a biodegradable barrier, which is the last part to biodegrade,” says Haimi.
One weakness of the product is that it is not suitable to be placed in moist places such as the bathroom. But Haimi says they are working on creating more durable versions of the material. “We are collecting a library of what kinds of chemical and cosmetic ingredients the jar can withstand and what the stability periods are. For oil-based products, it is two years. For water-containing products, we can guarantee a 12-month stability period.”
Other challenges that the company faces in bringing the product to market include a lack of awareness among the public on sustainable plastic choices. For instance, some parties claim that their plastic alternatives are sustainable, but Haimi points out that some of them may still contain microplastics, or plastic pieces that are less than 5mm, which can be ingested by marine life and transfer harmful substances from the water into organisms such as fish.
“There is just so much ‘green washing’ out there, [with people creating] bio-based plastics that do not degrade. You just have an additive that you insert into the plastic to make it degrade faster to become microplastics [instead of biodegradation] compared with normal plastics. These people, who have been marketing their solutions, have ruined the reputation of truly sustainable plastics,” she says.
Another challenge is the relatively high price of their solution. “It costs money to bring new technologies to market. When this material hits high volumes, then we will have a comparable price with plastic. But we are not there yet,” says Haimi.
In December, Sulapac announced a partnership with Stora Enso, a Finland-based company that deals with renewable solutions in packaging and other sectors. They are targeting industrial-scale production of straws made from Sulapac’s material to create a more sustainable substitute for plastic straws.
“In the long term, we are focusing on [replacing] the short-life cycle products to try and replace as much as possible out there. For instance, we now have food and cosmetic packaging. The next step are toys, consumer electronics and hygiene products,” says Haimi.
Other products the company aims to replace are water bottles and single-use cups.
Are bio-plastics the end solution?
The problem posed by plastic waste is daunting. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Economic Forum, about 280 million tonnes of plastic are produced globally each year with only a small percentage recycled. Up to 13 million tonnes of it end up in oceans, which cost billions of dollars in environmental damage per year.
Nations are also struggling to figure out the best solution. When China banned imports of plastic scrap last year, some of the waste was shipped illegally to countries such as Malaysia and Vietnam, according to Unearthed, Greenpeace UK’s news portal.
It is a pressing problem as the high amount of plastic waste finds its way to anyone who is willing to process it. The Malaysian government had to shut down illegal plastic recycling factories last September due to their dumping of waste and pollution into rivers. The illegal recycling plants had emerged in response to the high supply of plastic waste from foreign countries.
The good news is that there is no dearth of individuals trying to invent substitutes for plastic. In fact, UNEP points out that the alternative “plastic” product industry will be worth US$3.4 billion by 2020 and capture up to 20% of the plastics market over the next decade.
For instance, Indonesia-based Avani Eco has created a bag made of cassava that mimics the properties of a plastic bag, but is compostable and dissolves in water. In Malaysia, Heng Hiap Industries turns some used plastic into charcoal or energy sources while Biji-Biji Initiative’s Mereka makerspace uses plastic waste as the material for its 3D printing machines.
There remains some hurdles for bioplastics, which are biodegradable plastics made from renewable resources. A UNEP report on bio-plastics and marine litter addresses the current dilemma surrounding plastic substitutes. Complete biodegradation only occurs when none of the original polymers used to make the plastic exists, a process that involves microorganisms that break down the material into carbon dioxide, methane and water.
But “the process is temperature dependent and some plastics labelled ‘biodegradable’ require the conditions that typically occur in industrial composting units, with prolonged temperatures of above 50°C, to be completely broken down. Such conditions are rarely, if ever, met in the marine environment”, the report points out.
There may be a need to separate “biodegradable” plastics from non-biodegradable waste streams for the biodegradation process to be completed without contamination. The authors of the report point out that there is some evidence, albeit limited, that suggest labelling a product as “biodegradable” will actually result in a greater inclination among the public to litter.
The bottom line is that behavioural change needs to occur in parallel, according to an article by the UNEP. “Innovation is necessary and desirable, but the most important thing is to transition out of our lazy, ‘throwaway’ mindset that got us into hot soup to begin with. It is changing our behaviours, choices and actions that will save our seas. And the most urgent challenge right now is to get a whole lot better at how we manage plastic.”