Saving the world is a tired cliché in business. But one startup is actually doing it.
By the year 2050 we’ll have more plastic in our oceans than we have fish, if we do nothing about it. Plastics today are so prevalent that we are literally ingesting them – about five grams, or the equivalent of eating one credit card, every week.
This year, the world produced roughly 300 million tons of plastic. By 2050, we’ll be producing over one billion tons per year. Recycling seems an obvious solution, but that is often misunderstood – only about 20 percent of plastic is recycled, and most of that is down-cycled.
Dr. Laura Tirkkonen-Rajasalo and her company Sulapac have created a ground-wood technology, which allows the replacement of plastic in fast moving consumer goods. That elegant face-cream packaging from a luxury brand? With Sulapac’s help it can biodegrade in 12 weeks in an industrial composting facility. A drinking straw made using Sulapac technology breaks down even faster. “Our focus is on items that last less than five years,” says Tirkkonen-Rajasalo. “For more durable things you have to compromise with the biodegradability.” Sulapac leaves no microplastics, so you'll never find yourself eating plastic.
“Our idea was to develop something sustainable and beautiful that is an alternative to plastic,” she says. She and her partner, Dr. Suvi Haimi, chose to focus on ground wood because it was a raw material readily available in Finland. That said, research is underway into other materials.
Perhaps the real genius behind Sulapac’s technology is that it can be used on existing machinery in plastics factories. Tirkkonen-Rajasalo spent nine months working with a plastics injection molding machine. Today, the technology has been tested in more than 50 plastics factories in the US, Asia, and Europe. “We’re providing a sustainable option for plastics producers, one which also allows them to utilize their local resources.”
While many consumers will make a biodegradable choice when presented one, we live in an era where it’s hard to know what’s truly environmentally friendly. “Organic” and “natural” are printed on thousands, if not millions, of packages the world over – and they can mean many things.
Despite the expense of testing, Sulapac has chosen to submit its products for the rigorous testing required to earn Seedling and BPI certifications. The Seedling logo is a European Bioplastics registered trademark proving a product is certified industrially compostable in accordance with European standard EN 13432. For its new recipes, Sulapac will apply for a like certification from the Biodegradable Products Institute.
This commitment has paid off by attracting clients like jewelry producer Kohinoor and the cosmetics company Naviter. Chanel has become an investor, and Stora Enso a joint development partner, with whom they have launched an fully-biodegradable, ocean-friendly straw that never goes soggy in your drink. Wired recently named Sulapac among the 100 hottest startups in Europe, and in 2019 the company won the world championship of jewelry packaging.
Tirkkonen-Rajasalo sees her secret to success as her ability to choose a partner who complements her. “I’m the nerd in the lab, and Suvi is the extrovert. It’s important to find a partner who completes you.”
Her most recent challenge is balancing motherhood and career. Her son is only one year old, so she says she’s not yet ready to dispense advice to others. However, as Sulapac's lead researcher, she did have to find a way to ensure continuity during her maternity leave.
To that end, she persuaded Antti Pärssinen to leave the company's advisory board and take a position in the office. Pärssinen has a background in wood composites, with specific experience developing wood casts for bone fractures. Pärssinen took responsibility while she was away, which proved fortuitous when the EU announced it would ban single-use plastics. “Plastic extrusion, the technology needed for straws, is Antti’s expertise, while mine is injection molding.”
Since her return, Sulapac has hired a professional CTO, a role which previously belonged to Tirkkonen-Rajasalo. Schools don’t yet offer degrees in motherhood, but the experience might provide the ultimate coursework in selflessness. “I’ll do whatever benefits the company,” she says, emphasizing that she’s at her best, and most happy, in the lab.
Pictures: Sulapac / Marjo Noukka, Technology Industries of Finland / Salla Merikukka