As lawmakers call time on plastics – thanks in no small part to the wave of public outrage unleashed by David Attenborough’s Blue Planet, and the European Parliament’s vote to ban certain single use plastic items in October 2018 – the market for bio-based plastic alternatives is growing. 

There are numerous startups in Europe wanting a piece of the plastic alternatives market, but it comes with its challenges.

Sulapac: plastic alternative straws

One startup that wants to save the oceans is Sulapac, a Finnish biocomposites startup. During the Slush startup conference in 2018, Sulapac founder Suvi Haimi unveiled an eco-friendly, fully biodegradable straw that Haimi was planning to market globally in partnership with Stora Enso, the Finnish pulp and paper company.

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“We had already seen a lot of interest in plastic alternatives, but this accelerated after the vote,” says Seppo Parvi, chief financial officer of Stora Enso.

For Stora Enso, working with startups like Sulapac is a form of future-proofing. Biocomposites and other new ventures account for around 7% of Stora Enso’s annual sales, or around €700m.  is expecting this to double to 15%  within the next few years. And so, in May 2018 the company started working with Sulapac to create biodegradable caps and closers for drinks, before expanding to straws – which they plan to bring to the market in 2019.

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“We had a vision to save the oceans and the straw was one of the most visible plastic pollutants so we decided to focus on that.” 

“We had a vision to save the oceans and the straw was one of the most visible plastic pollutants so we decided to focus on that,” says Haimi.

Sulapac is one of a number of plastic alternatives startups racing to grab market share. Founded in 2016 by Suvi Haimi and Laura Kyllonen, Sulapac makes a number of packaging and other items from biocomposite – a combination of wood pulp and natural binders. These are designed to break down within 29 days in an industrial composter, around the same rate as a piece of wood, and will also biodegrade if they wind up in the sea.  

Image of the Sulapac biodegradable plastic alternatives straw
The Sulapac straw, an alternative to the conventional plastic straw

Other startups are exploring different materials

In London, Skipping Rock Labs, founded in 2014, has created an edible plastic packaging based on seaweed. The company, founded by Pierre-Yves Paslier and Rodrigo Garica Gonzalez, began with edible ‘capsules’ of water and this summer launched a line of ketchup sachets which it is trialing with 10 London takeaway restaurants and JustEat, the food delivery service, ahead of a a commercial launch next year.

There’s a snag, though: shelf-life. After just a few days the Skipping Rock Labs product – known as Ooho – will start to shrivel. It can tear easily and cannot be resealed, which makes it less attractive to potential clients like hotels, where there’s a big market for small toiletries.

Israeli startup Tipa, meanwhile, is tackling the issue of flexible packaging, such as the wrappers around coffee, fresh produce and snack bars. While rigid plastic containers are often at least partly recyclable, flexible packaging, which is not made of pure plastic polymers but a blend of materials, is much more difficult to reuse.

Founded in 2010 by Daphna Nissenbaum and Tal Neuman, Tipa had created a bio-based film that will compost fully in six months in an industrial composter. The material has been used by companies such as Ekoplaza, the Dutch supermarket, which made headlines in February for creating a completely plastic-free aisle in its stores.

The biggest challenges with plastic alternatives

Plastic alternatives cost more 

The challenge with biodegradable plastic alternatives is that they’re still much more expensive than conventional plastic. A Sulapac straw costs more than three times as much as a plastic one, around the same as a paper straw. Haimi says that in time, with greater production volumes, biocomposites could become cost competitive with plastics, but that unfortunately it won’t happen anytime soon. For now, much of Sulapac’s work is with luxury brands such as Chanel, whose customers can more easily absorb the high packaging costs.

Plastic alternatives still affect the environment

Another challenge for plastic alternatives is the question around environmental impact. While it’s acknowledged that plastic alternatives will degrade in an industrial composter, not all of them will break down in environments like the ocean, and they could still be harmful to wildlife. Others question the eco-credentials of these materials, given the amount of energy used to manufacture them, and their potential to divert farmland away from the production of food.

Investors still see the opportunities in plastic alternatives

Nevertheless, with plastic bans likely to come into force across Europe within the next three years, companies and investors are sensing an opportunity. Tipa raised a $11m series-B funding round at the end of 2017, from investors including GreenSoil Investments, the Israeli agrifood tech venture capital company, and Horizons Ventures, Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-Shing’s VC fund. Sulapac received €1m in seed funding from Lifeline Ventures, Arden Venture and Tekes and a €2m grant from the EU’s Horizon 2020 fund. It is planning to raise a series-A funding round in 2019.

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