Waste not, want not. This seems like a fitting adage for much of the waste problems plaguing the world now.
In Finland, though, there are start-ups and enterprises that actually want the world’s waste as they seek opportunities to make money from garbage.
The Nordic country’s government has embraced the circular economy where the lifespan of items is prolonged through recycling and reusing multiple times. This has encouraged several companies to step up and embrace the idea.
Finnish start-up Sulapac is proposing to replace plastic altogether.
The firm is touting its product as a completely biodegradable material made of wood and natural binders that is capable of solving the world’s dependency on plastic and its deeply destructive waste products like microplastics.
Microplastics, the scourge of the oceans and capable of infiltrating into the most remote places, are any type of plastic fragments that are small and barely visible. A Greenpeace East Asia study with South Korea’s Incheon National University found that over 90% of table salt used in kitchens contains microplastics – with salt sourced in Asia having the most.
Sulapac’s marketing and communications head Antti Valtonen says with almost 300 million tonnes of plastic produced every year – and increasing – microplastics are a real challenge.
“Mechanical recycling is not enough and when plastic is reused, it rarely can be used for the same application,” he says during a presentation in Helsinki last month.
Recycled plastic, for instance, cannot be used to manufacture medical supplies or food containers. It’s usually remade into a lower quality product that cannot be recycled again.
Unlike conventional plastic, Sulapac’s materials can be digested by naturally occurring microorganisms and will biodegrade quickly – in 21 days under industrial composting – into safe CO2, water and biomass.
The material has the feel and density of plastic and can be used as packaging for cosmetics, foodstuffs, gift boxes and even single use items like cotton buds and the ubiquitous drinking straw. It also comes in a variety of colours and designs.
Best yet, production lines manufacturing the material can take advantage of locally sourced materials.
Sulapac reportedly attracted investment from luxury fashion house Chanel in 2018 after it won the 2017 Green Alley Award, Europe’s startup prize for the circular economy, and the Sustainable Packaging category at the 2017 Sustainable Beauty Awards in Paris.
Neste was originally founded in 1948 to secure Finland’s oil supply but has transformed itself from being mainly a fossil fuel refinery into the world’s largest producer of renewable diesel from waste and residues.
It claims to be the only company in the world to produce renewable fuels from more than 10 different raw materials such as palm oil effluent, plastic scraps, animal and fish fat waste, and even used cooking oil.
Vice-president for research and development Petri Lehmus says Neste’s transformation, which began in 2005, is showing results.
“Neste’s renewable fuel produced in 2018 has reduced carbon emissions by 7.9 million tonnes, which is equivalent to permanently removing three million cars from the roads,” he said during a press tour of the company’s refinery in Porvoo, some 50km from Helsinki in Finland recently.
The company pours some €48mil (RM223mil) annually into research and employs over 1,000 people in research and development, primarily looking at raw material research and testing.
Lehmus says Neste has developed and already started commercialising its renewable jet fuel, which he claims is capable of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The company’s renewable diesel is also selling in pumps in California, Sweden and Finland as well as a blend in other fuels.
“Climate change defines the future of the energy sector,” says Lehmus, which is why there is a need to innovate circular solutions where carbon would be reused again and again.
The Neste MY Renewable Diesel is touted to be produced 100% from renewable raw materials.
The company has operations in 15 countries, including Malaysia from where it sources sustainable palm oil effluent as one of its raw materials, and a new plant in Singapore, one of the world’s largest renewable diesel refineries.
“Palm oil is a high-yield crop, higher than even rape seed,” says Neste senior communications manager for emerging businesses and sustainability Sari Lehmuskallio.
Palm oil effluent, she explains produces renewable biofuel with 69% less emissions, which is way better than many other types of vegetable oil raw materials.
Sari adds that Neste engages with its suppliers in Malaysia to ensure that the source of its raw materials is both sustainable and not involved in deforestation.
Unlike the other two companies that deal with problems caused by waste, textile company Infinited Fiber uses waste to plug the gap in the supply chain for cotton.
Its CEO Petri Alava explains that the fashion industry has long struggled with sustainability issues: textiles require a huge water supply at pre-manufacturing and manufacturing stages; microfibres are released during washing; and a huge chunk of textile waste eventually ends up in landfills.
And clothes are hardly recycled and reused multiple times: Alava says statistics indicate that in the United States, many people wear an outfit for an average of merely five times – some even wear things once for their Instagram shot!
“Fashion, the price we pay to look good, is the second most polluting industry,” he says.
“Also, a global challenge is the lack of material like cotton, due to increases in population and consumption from the rise in the purchasing power of the middle class,” he adds.
Infinited Fiber, he claims, is a new biodegradable and sustainable fibre made from textile and cardboard waste that has the look and feel of cotton, with better colour uptake from dyeing. It also uses less water and is 20% cheaper to produce than cotton and the semi-synthetic fiber viscose.
The company further claims that its technology allows textile waste to be used again and again without any reduction in its quality.
All this, says Alava, from using “pretty old technology” from the 1930s.
He is convinced that consumers won’t mind paying more for clothes or products that they believe are sustainable.
“Millennials are 12 times more responsive to sustainability and are willing to pay for it,” says Alava.
In April this year, the start-up announced that it had raised 3.7mil (RM17mil) in funding from investors such as Swedish fashion giant H&M Group, the Finnish state-owned energy company Fortum and digital marketing firm Virala.
Infinited Fiber is currently running a 50-tonne pilot plant in Finland with hopes of eventually increasing output to 500 tonnes.