Replacing plastic: A huge business opportunity

A few decades ago, you could’ve become a billionaire in plastics. The industrial economy was maturing and the world was awash in new business opportunities, inventions, and materials. Excitement for new developments often caused people to overlook their potential hazards. And now that we’re waking up to the looming crises posed by plastics, how can we both mitigate disaster and create business opportunities?

We sat down with Esa Torniainen to find out how Paptic is working to replace plastic, save the world, and build a great business in the process.

Replacing plastic:  A huge business opportunity

Imagine if we could replace all the plastic in the world

Somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is a patch of garbage twice the size of Texas. Much of the waste is plastic. And it’s not just the one patch. In fact, one quarter of the earth’s ocean surface now accumulates floating plastic waste. “This is something humankind should be ashamed of,” Esa says.

Esa is a co-founder and Head of Business Development at Paptic, a Finnish startup dedicated to replacing plastics in many end uses. “Plastic always finds its way into nature and from there it ends up in the oceans. It even escapes from recycling systems. At least 10 million tons of plastic ends up in the world’s oceans every year. That’s more than 1 kg of plastic for every person on the planet. Imagine if we could replace all the plastic in the world.”

Imagine if we could replace all the plastic in the world.

“At Paptic, we can do it. We’ve developed a material that replaces plastic. It’s a bio-based material made from wood fibers. It has a premium look and feel, we can use it to make carrier bags and flexible packaging, and it can replace plastics in other applications, too. Better still, it’s renewable and recyclable. The beautiful thing isn’t that it’s made of wood, it’s that it’s not made of non-degradable plastic. And this is a key distinction.”

Local and national governments are starting to ban plastic bags and other non-reusable forms of plastic packaging. “When something is banned, a replacement is needed. And that’s a business opportunity”, says Esa.

Scalable technology means scalable business

One of the most promising things about Paptic is that it can be produced with existing papermaking infrastructure. “We’re making a renewable material with “recycled” paper machines. This makes it extremely scalable because there are many machines that can be retrofitted, and nobody needs to build new mills because there is already excess capacity – there are lots of paper mills around the world that have gone into disuse.”

Right now, Paptic is looking for partners with available capacity, and is in talks with several forest and paper machine companies discussing collaboration for the larger-scale production of Paptic. “We all know what’s happening to the paper industry and machine owners are already looking for new materials to produce. That’s why we can dare to think about a million-ton capacity.”

To offer a real replacement, you have to be better than the original. Paptic is better than plastic and better than paper.

Great properties and great timing

Paptic’s platform is a novel type of paper production technology called foam forming, and it can be produced using a modified paper machine. “Our timing was excellent, as soon as we sent samples to customers who were interested in replacing plastic bags, we got incredibly positive feedback. The market was really there, and it needed to be served fast. So we decided to take the product to the market ourselves. We converted an old pilot paper machine to make it and within 14 months of starting our operations we were able to ship our first products to a customer.”

As a material, Paptic has great properties: it’s more durable than paper, it doesn’t tear as easily, and it stretches, too. “When Paptic bags were shown to consumers in our customer’s stores, the feedback was unbelievably good. They didn’t just talk about sustainability but also about how it felt and how it looked. It doesn’t look or feel like a carrier bag, it looks like a real bag, and it really feels great.”


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It’s a great time to create green business

If you want to change the world, this is the right time to start bringing bio-based renewable ideas to the market. “The field keeps growing. There are a lot of small startups and we each have something unique. In a place like Finland the connections to the forestry industry are really valuable – but there are other startups a little further away from the industry, and if the forestry companies really want to renew their business, they should really be active there. It’s not just about starting innovation hubs or accelerator programs –they should start investing in the new companies and opening up their networks, offering their support services.“

Let’s show the big companies that it can be done

“My advice to a new startup is create a network first, create an advisory board with people from different positions – experienced people that say “yes I want to help you”. We’ve been able to collaborate with Kemira and test different chemistries, which has been useful to our product development. We’ve also been able to utilize Kemira’s R&D equipment and facilities for our product development work – for a small company like us it has a big impact. We have saved some money and more importantly, time.

“A typical message we’ve got from our advisors is ‘You are doing exactly what I have always thought the industry should do. Let’s show those big companies that it can be done.”

Three key elements for success

Although things have happened fast for Paptic, the essential elements were in place. “I like to say that a start-up needs three things to succeed: a solid base for business, good timing, and good luck.

The three of us who founded the company knew there was a market need. Tuomas Mustonen, our Managing Director, really knows about financing; Dr. Karita Kinnunen-Raudaskoski, our Head of Research & Development knows the technology better than anyone; and I’m the Head of Business Development with experience in new business and service development.

So we had a solid base for our business, our timing is excellent, and now we are just waiting for the luck!”

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