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Sulapac – Driving systemic change in the packaging industry

Sustainable packaging by Sulapac

"If you fry an egg, it becomes plastic, according to the EU", says Suvi Haimi, co-founder of Sulapac, a material-focused start-up on a mission to drive a systemic change which would enable the usage of new sustainable material innovations.

Based in Helsinki, Sulapac was founded in 2016 by a small team of biochemists who share a passion and desire to create new groundbreaking safe material, suitable for a variety of applications including: beauty product and food packaging, cutlery, and straws. Essentially, this exciting brand is inviting systemic change with an offering of sustainable plastic alternatives. Now in its 7th year of business, we spoke with biochemist and co-founder Suvi Haimi to discover more about how the brand started, how it has developed, the challenges Sulapac faces, and its focus for 2023.

Hello Suvi and thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak to us. Please can you start by telling us more about the people behind the Sulapac brand?

“We were founded in 2016 and we are based in Helsinki. We have three co-founders: Laura Tirkkonen-Rajasalo, Antti Pärssinen, and myself, Suvi Haimi. Our background is biochemistry. We all share the same mission that we want to use our expertise to solve something that is close to our hearts, and that is the global plastic waste problem. We also have this systemic change agenda behind the company. So, that’s what united us.”

“We all share the same mission that we want to use our expertise to solve something that is close to our hearts, and that is the global plastic waste problem.”
Suvi Haimi founded Sulapac together with Laura Tirkkonen-Rajasalo and Antti Pärssinen, who all have a background in biochemistry.

Can you tell us what issue the brand is looking to solve?

“Our concern is the microplastic challenge. We eat a credit card’s weight of microplastic every week, and there is a vast amount of studies that link these microplastic to Alzheimer's disease and cancer. There are even studies which show that newborn babies are passed these microplastics even from their mother’s breast milk. We want to make materials which are safe for the planet and humans. Ultimately, the only thing that stops the microplastics being released to nature is for humans to stop using conventional plastics.”

Sulapac is a start-up, so can you give us more detail about how large the Sulapac team is now, and what different roles and departments exist within the company?

“We now have approximately 30 people working at Sulapac. We have a sales team, a small marketing team, a supply chain team, and an administration team. However, the main part of Sulapac is the research and development department, which includes chemists and engineers. Additionally, we have a team for sustainability, quality and regulatory matters”.

We are aware that funding is vital for young brands. What was needed for the company to get started?

“Part of my studies looked at entrepreneurship. Dirk Grijpma was a lecturer of mine whilst I was at the university and he had early success in biomaterial startups. He put the seed of entrepreneurship in my mind. Also critical for Sulapac getting started was Business Finland, which is a governmental organisation in Finland that funds the R&D businesses and the early stage companies. And we had angel investors too. So, these were the three key critical investors in the beginning of the Sulapac journey.”

What sources did the main sections of funding come from?

“The funding was half and half. First it was approximately Euro 150,000, and then we (the founders) put little bits in ourselves. It was then doubled by Business Finland. So, approximately Euro 300,000 was the base when we started the company and Business Finland is very much the key supporter for our business still and also for international expansions. There’s a project called New Innovative Companies and we are involved in that. It’s government based funding basically.”

“Business Finland is very much the key supporter for our business.”
Sulapac offers multiple packaging materials for the cosmetics industry.

Thinking about what challenges Sulapac has faced to date, can you describe to us what the main difficulties are that the company has encountered?

1. Creating awareness that there is a difference between bio-based and biodegradable

“A big issue we have faced is that people don’t understand the difference between whether a material is bio-based, or bio-based and biodegradable. If it's just a bio-based material then you get these permanent microplastics, and the plastic waste problem remains. It’s only with the bio-based and biodegradable materials that you can tackle the permanent microplastic challenge. In terms of being truly sustainable, a material needs to be both bio-based and biodegradable.”

2. Introducing an infrastructure for recycling that includes bio-based biodegradable materials

“There have been some challenges with the packaging and packaging waste regulation (PPWR) proposal within the EU. Essentially, the petrochemical companies want everyone to just use recycled PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate, an unsaturated polymer), PEE (Polyethylene Ether), and PP (Polypropylene, a saturated polymer), and nothing else! There’s no recycling infrastructure for bio-based and biodegradable material in Finland, even though these materials are also technically recyclable.”

3. Systemic change at EU level

“To achieve systemic change, not only the PPWR, but also the Single-Use Plastic Directive should be critically evaluated. Once again petrochemical companies won the battle, because of the too broad definition of plastic, which is now “all chemically modified biochemical polymers”, even if they are bacteria made. Like PHA (polyesters produced in nature by numerous microorganisms.), which is defined as plastic. Also, if you fry an egg it becomes plastic according to the EU definition of plastic, which is kind of crazy.

It’s a challenge for the environment, and a hindrance in terms of the green transition, as it discourages the usage of new sustainable material innovations. This, combined with the fact that reusable traditional plastics are allowed, has just increased the usage of conventional plastic, whereas sustainable, innovative materials are not recognized by this directive. This is most probably not the way it was supposed to be.”

Sulapac material is fully biogradable.

Following on from this, can you tell us what support Sulapac has received?

“Our investors share the same values and are driving systemic change with us. We were joined in 2019 by Chanel who have been one of the key investors. Others include Bonnier Ventures, Sky Ocean Ventures, and Lifeline Ventures. Additionally, we have been receiving full support from several ministers, as well as other members of parliament too. 

“We were joined in 2019 by Chanel who have been one of the key investors.”

Having said this, it’s hard for politicians to understand which instances are really driving decision making based on scientific data, and who are just lobbying their own business. So, ideally we need a clearer representation within the European parliament in the DG’s because it’s hard as a single startup to participate and have the time to be present in all of those discussions.”

If you were to describe it in layman’s terms, what is the science behind the Sulapac material?

“Our materials are a mix of plant-based biopolymers and sustainable fillers like the waste wood coming from industrial sidestreams, and naturally occurring clay minerals. For example, Chanel No.1 uses the camellia seed oils in its skincare cream. We use the camellia seed shells, which can be treated as a side stream similar to the wood chips we use in our portfolio materials, and we combine it with the plant-based biopolymers once again, which are of course biodegradable. The result is a new bio-based and biodegradable material, not leaving permanent microplastic behind.”

Has the team at Sulapac discovered any like-minded people or businesses whilst they have been developing their own, that have encouraged the Sulapac business growth?

“Yes, we have like-minded Finnish cousin companies, who, whilst they are not necessarily tackling exactly the same challenges, they are also replacing plastics. Like sustainable packaging material brand Paptic, whom we are working with whenever we can. Then we have these other beautiful sustainable material innovations like ‘reborn textile’ that is produced by Infinited Fibre.”

Read also: Five Finnish companies that are redesigning the future of the textile industry

Bio-based premium sustainable straws are stocked by luxury hotels such as St Regis, Four Seasons Resort, and Caesar's Palace in Dubai.

How soon do you think Finland can be plastic-free and replace plastic straws, cosmetic packaging, and cutlery, by?

“When it comes to straws, the Single Use Plastic (or SUP) legislation is currently formulated in a way, which doesn’t allow companies to choose the alternatives that are best for the environment - and the user. In terms of cutlery, new sustainable materials are already being adopted. However, many companies still opt for conventional plastic, as there’s no regulative pressure to choose otherwise. 

Why is that so? The reason behind this defect is that the SUP legislation doesn’t make a difference between conventional plastic, which remains in the environment for 500 years, and new sustainable bio-based materials, which biodegrade without leaving microplastic or toxic load behind. Anything goes as long as the cutlery is reusable. Reusability as such is a positive thing, however, in reality the usage of plastic has only increased and the problem of plastic pollution isn’t going anywhere, only getting worse. So, more education is needed to help people, especially lawmakers, identify the genuinely sustainable solutions and understand the risk of microplasic accumulation.

“Ideally we need more clear representation within the European parliament.”

With cosmetic packaging the future looks very promising, as we have, besides existing customers, discussions ongoing with many new brands both in the EU and globally. There are pioneering cosmetic brands also in Finland that are taking action towards a plastic waste-free future. 

In order to scale up the usage of biobased and biodegradable materials in packaging, there needs to be a proper recycling infrastructure. When we have this in place, the volume of sustainable materials used by cosmetic brands can be expected to increase exponentially.

Finland should drive the change in other sectors as well, and that’s something Sulapac can help with, as our materials can replace conventional plastic in a variety of applications.”

What support are you requiring now, in order to move the Sulapac brand and business forward in 2023 and beyond?

“We - and the world - need legislation which supports the green transition including biobased and biodegradable materials which can be chemically recycled, because this is the most efficient way to cut dependency on fossil-based raw-materials and protect biodiversity. In order to help these materials to become mainstream, we must actively develop the recycling infrastracture, together with multiple stakeholders.

At the moment a variety of bio-based and biodegradable materials get mixed with traditional plastic during the plastic collection and separation process, and end up burnt, as is often the case with conventional plastic too. 

Today’s recycling infra and the mechanical recycling is not going to solve this challenge. With the systemic change, however, we will gain access to the biodegradable materials within the post-consumer waste. These materials will be chemically recycled back to bio-based and biodegradable biopolymers, which are then used to manufacture new packaging, tableware, and straws. 

“We need legislation which supports the green transition including biobased and biodegradable materials which can be chemically recycled.”

This loop can go on and on eternally, meaning the carbon keeps on cycling instead of being released to the atmosphere. The technology already exists and could be utilised, and this is the direction we want the world to move towards. Our goal at Sulapac is to use only recycled raw-materials in the future.

What would be your words of advice for anyone looking to start or develop a business in Finland?

“The Business Finland funding tools are really good, and if you have pre-seed funding - from the founders and angel investors - then you can use this as a starting point to apply for funding from Business Finland. Additionally, we have this beautiful community in Finland called the Finnish Startup Community. So whether you have a medical startup, an energy startup, or a gaming startup, this is a useful community and a source of support by helpful and successful entrepreneurs, with members like Ilkka Paananen, founder of Supercell, and Miki Kuusi, founder of Wolt.

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