Envisioning a world without plastic

“It bothered me that nobody seemed to be doing much to solve the plastic problem, even though there were alternatives.”

A doctor of medical biomaterials has moved from growing jawbones to producing ecological cosmetic packages.

Fed up with the omnipresence of plastic waste and encouraged by her fellow researchers, Suvi Haimi decided to found a company.

Haimi made the final decision to become an entrepreneur after making one crucial phone call to Petro Lahtinen, a doctor of chemistry, who had left his academic career in order to pursue a career as a start-up entrepreneur. In the early 2010s, Lahtinen and his business partner Antti Pärssinen developed a wooden orthopaedic casting material.

Haimi was well on her way to starting an international academic career by taking up a job as an assistant professor at the University of Texas. However, something did not feel quite right.

“I wondered if an academic career would allow me to realise my vision one hundred percent,” Haimi now says, a few years after the revolutionary phone call.

Encouraged by Lahtinen and Pärssinen, Haimi made the decision to abandon her academic career. Haimi collaborated with Laura Kyllönen, whose PhD thesis Haimi had supervised at the University of Tampere, and Lahtinen and Pärssinen also became business partners. Together, they started to realise an ambitious vision to save the world from plastic waste.

We are sitting in the office of Haimi’s company, Sulapac, in Helsinki. There is plenty of office space because another start-up company has just moved away. This is fortunate, as Sulapac’s growing team needs more room.

Sulapac is developing cosmetics packaging from wood and natural binders: it is therefore 100% biodegradable and contains no microplastics. The packages are made by injection moulding. Such Finnish cosmetics giants as Lumene and Berner are using Sulapac’s packages, among others, and pilots are also underway with international brands.

Nevertheless, it has not been easy to reach this point. The first potential manufacturers whom Haimi and Kyllönen contacted firmly announced that their idea was not feasible. However, they continued undeterred; they were not even discouraged when the first practical experiment resulted in indefinable, snot-coloured pulp. Haimi has kept the pulp as a memento.

Someone more uncertain might have given up at that stage, but the entrepreneurs were driven by their unshakable belief that biomaterials could be used to do new things if the correct parameters could be found.

That certainty had been acquired at the University of Tampere in the 2000s. A research group doing pioneering research had used biomaterials and adipose stem cells to grow bone tissue inside a human body. If biomaterials could be used to form a functioning body part, it was likely they could also be used to make jars, and in the end, they did. Sulapac is currently producing delicate and luxurious cosmetics jars and jewellery cases. The next step is to expand into food packaging.

In addition to scientific knowledge, the entrepreneurs have been driven by frustration.

“It bothered me that nobody seemed to be doing much to solve the plastic problem, even though alternatives existed. I wondered why biomaterials were not used more widely,” Haimi says.

There is a demand for ecological packaging, and its brand value has long been recognised. However, there is still a way to go before alternative packaging materials fully replace plastic.

“That will not happen in the next few years. First, you have to change attitudes, such as ideas about the durability of products,” Haimi points out.

If packaged in plastic, cosmetics remain usable for years, but the packaging itself will keep for centuries. “The question is whether the products need to stay usable for such a long time. If we really want genuinely biodegradable packaging, we have to make compromises about durability,” Haimi explains.

Haimi points out that a genuinely biodegradable material is different from “bioplastics”, a term frequently used in the marketing of various products. The latter often refers to material made from renewable natural resources that are chemically identical to oil-based plastic packaging. Recycled plastic packaging is also referred to as ecological. According to Haimi, this is a very good idea, and recycling should be supported, but it will not remove the ultimate problem, which is the nearly eternal lifespan of plastics in the ecosystem in the form of microplastics.

Instead, as the name implies, biodegradable materials break down in nature. Sulapac’s cosmetic packaging decomposes in weeks or months, depending on the environment, and it does not leave behind residual microplastics.

The regular consumer may sometimes find it hard to distinguish between a genuinely eco-friendly product and a green-washed pretender. Sadly, producing the latter is a huge business.

Despite their goodwill, consumers often defer the responsibility for making ecological choices. Haimi therefore hopes that manufacturers will also react to the problem. In particular, the forestry industry is a key player, and the owners of major brands can play a significant role.

Besides consumers and producers, retailers also have an influence, for example, in terms of the types of packaging materials on their shelves. However, stores often claim that consumers are not prepared to pay the extra cost for ecological packaging.

“That is an often-heard argument,” Haimi says.

However, in her opinion, it will not be the final answer.

Sulapac’s strategy has been to launch luxury products whose users are not so price-sensitive. As the volume of production grows, the price of the packaging will also come down. Products for price-conscious customers will be the next logical step.

Suvi Haimi
• Born in Tampere.
• Graduated as a Master of Science in biochemistry at the University of Tampere.
• Worked at the Regea Institute for Regenerative Medicine and at BioMediTech in Tampere.
• Defended her doctoral dissertation on medical biomaterials in December 2008. Her dissertation was the first to be jointly supervised by the University of Tampere and Tampere University of Technology.
• Worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Twente in the Netherlands in 2011–2015, where a professor asked her why she was working at a university instead of being an entrepreneur.
• CEO of Sulapac since 2016.

The best thing learned at university:

“A dissertation is like a driver’s licence. By doing the research for my dissertation, I learned how deeply you need to study one scientific area before you can begin to apply the expertise to a new area. It also helped me to understand that it is possible to do trailblazing things. Our research group was the best in the world in its field, and I learned that if you want to do something significant, you must be the best in the world at the thing that you decide to do.”

Advice to people who dream about their own innovations:

“The possibilities are endless. If you want to do something, it pays off to contact other experts in the field and ask them for advice even at the cost of making yourself open to ridicule. It is also worthwhile to identify in a timely manner what it is that you know yourself and what you need from others. You cannot know everything yourself and you do not need to.”

Sulapac
A company developing and manufacturing biodegradable cosmetic packaging and jewellery boxes from wood composite and natural binders. Within a few years, the company plans to start manufacturing food packaging.
The company won three international awards for innovation in the autumn of 2017:
• In Monaco, Sulapac collected the “LUXEPACK in Green” trophy in the “best green packaging solution” category.
• In Paris, Sulapac received the 2017 Sustainable Packaging Award in the Sustainable Beauty Awards. Among others, the cosmetics giant L’Oréal competed in the same category.
• In the same week, Sulapac won the Green Alley Award, which is a new European prize for start-ups in the circular economy.

Text: Hanna Hyvärinen
Photograph: Petri Vanhanen