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Finnish nature makes for innovative materials

Finnish material innovation is always inspired by nature. Woodio’s fully waterproof wood composite washbasins and bathtub are a world-first.

Pauliina Salonen

As the global packaging, textile and food industries are grappling with a sustainability crisis, Finnish innovators are generating new material solutions bound to make the world a better and cleaner place.

Nature has always been an essential element of life for all Finns. With this deep-rooted respect for the natural environment, Finnish innovation is constantly seeking ways to mitigate environmental stress and support the future in the long term.

It is no secret that plastic debris can now be found everywhere. Plastics make up 85 per cent of marine litter across the world, posing a major environmental threat and harming both marine life and people.

Sulapac’s packaging solutions and products are beautiful, functional and eco-friendly. Image: Sulapac

With plastic waste filling up the oceans at an alarming rate, the need for new responsible materials is hard to overestimate.

Finns know well that nature can offer useful ingredients for developing new materials, and the Finnish do-it-yourself mentality dictates that if the best solution is yet to be found, it is time to roll up the sleeves and get started.

Green alternatives

In recent years, in an attempt to ease the environmental burden, Finnish companies have come up with many sustainable alternatives to traditional plastics that can be used in packaging.

One of the pioneers in the field is Helsinki-based Sulapac, with its biodegradable and microplastic-free material made from wood and plant-based binders. The world has taken notice of the promising ecological material: the company has completed impressive funding rounds and been awarded in Monaco, Berlin and Paris.

With the initial focus on cosmetics packaging, Sulapac has gradually widened its offering to include packaging solutions for jewellery items and foodstuffs, as well as to produce a renewable and fully biodegradable straw in co-operation with Stora Enso.

Also developing novel wooden solutions is Woodio, a company whose fully waterproof wood composite washbasins and bathtubs are a world-first. Setting out to disrupt the heavy-polluting ceramics industry, Woodio’s sustainable approach was recently recognised with a Fennia Prize.

One more step towards a more sustainable planet is being taken by Paptic. Established in 2015 as a response to the banning of plastic bags in numerous countries, Paptic has developed a renewable, reusable and recyclable material based on wood fibre. The solution is now in high demand among sustainability-oriented brands and retailers.

Woodly’s novel carbon-neutral plastic is used to package herbs in Finland. Image: Woodly

Finland’s major department store chains, Sokos and Stockmann, recently said goodbye to plastic bags and introduced Paptic carrier bags and e-commerce mailers, and the customer feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Paptic’s nature-friendly approach has resonated well with Moomin Characters, too.

In late 2019, Moomin Characters made a significant investment in Paptic and, this year, the reusable bags will be featured in Moomin shops.

Forest-rich Finland is also home to Woodly, a cleantech company that has been generating international interest with its novel type of wood-based plastic. Endorsed by the professional community, the material is carbon-neutral and made of cellulose extracted from sustainably managed and FSC-certified forests.

Last summer, Woodly’s packaging material was tested in selected K Group food shops. As part of the trial, 10 000 Pirkka rose begonia products have been wrapped in the material instead of oil-based plastic.

Textile innovations

The global textile industry, which for years has been criticised for its unsustainability, is crying out for innovation, too: textile manufacturing processes require toxic chemicals, plastic microfibres from synthetic fabrics end up in the oceans, and cotton farms use excessive amounts of water, fertilisers and pesticides. Meanwhile, Finland is striving to find new pathways in this much-maligned sector.

With its unique technology, Infinited Fiber Company is offering a closed-loop solution to the textile problem. Image: Infinited Fiber Company

Spun off from VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland in 2015, Infinited Fiber Company (IFC) has made a name for itself with a groundbreaking technology for transforming textile waste into high-quality fibres that can be used to make new sustainable cotton-like textiles. And the process can be repeated again and again, enabling a fully circular system.

IFC has a pilot plant in Finland and is receiving a lot of interest from both investors and global fashion brands like Weekday, which created a denim outfit made entirely from IFC fabric for British actress Maisie Williams.

Another active player in the field is Spinnova. Its award-winning patented technology converts wood pulp directly into textile fibre without dissolving or harmful chemicals and with zero waste streams. Additionally, 99 per cent less water is used than in cotton production.

Spinnova has great partners with similar values and vision. The year 2017 marked the beginning of co-operation with Finnish design icon Marimekko on the development and market entry of new wood-based textiles. Earlier this year, Spinnova and Kemira entered into a long-term collaboration to develop a sustainable inherent dyeing technology for fibre.

While Spinnova is using wood pulp as a raw material, Knokkon is focusing on nettle to produce yarn, fabrics and different consumer products with a sustainable touch. In fact, nettle-based fabrics were used for royal garments hundreds of years ago, and now they are being reinvented and reintroduced as a responsible choice.

Food of the future

It is not only what we wear and how we package things that need to be rethought to make the world a little greener. Sustainable solutions for the food sector and disconnecting it from agriculture – one of the world’s largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions – can help to fight the climate change as well.

Finnish company Solar Foods has developed a revolutionary way to produce natural protein by using renewable electricity and air. The award-winning solution supported by investors is expected to turn food production on its head as it doesn’t depend on agriculture, the weather or the climate.

At the moment, Solar Foods’ sustainable protein is being tested in different food products ahead of the start of commercial production scheduled for 2021. Later, the cost-competitive protein that has a 10 to 100 times smaller climate impact than plant-based and animal proteins could be grown and harvested anywhere, even in space.

The future is being made here and now.

By: Zhanna Koiviola