As consumers are becoming more and more aware of the colossal plastic problem facing the world today, many are also growing frustrated with the lack of opportunities to reduce the amount of plastic waste they produce.
The European Commission, for example, has reported that 94 per cent of the public view that products should be designed to ease recycling and that industry and retailers should reduce plastic packaging, which currently accounts for more than 60 per cent of all plastic waste collected in Europe.
“Consumers are demanding alternative materials from brand owners,” says Jaakko Kaminen, the CEO of Welmu International.
“They are the last loop in every value chain – they vote with their feet and change the chains. There have been lots of ecological trends over the years, but now the pressure is real as consumers have started to talk about this over the past couple of years. Brand owners feel that they have to make investments, which puts pressure on manufacturing industries.”
Wood-based films, containers and coatings
This is as much an ethical obligation as it is a business opportunity for Welmu International. The Finnish startup was founded in 2011 specifically to explore the possibility of developing a wood-based alternative for plastics.
“It started as a shrink film project, but after sitting down with brand owners we realised that wasn’t the way to go. There were use cases that were technologically easier but in higher demand,” recounts Kaminen.
“Over the past few years, we’ve found a recipe that has allowed us to step out of the lab and move on to industrial-scale trials with our partners.”
The recipe has produced Woodly, a growing family of transparent plastic-free packaging materials made primarily of coniferous cellulose: Woodly 100 is a heat-sealable film for herbs and other food products, Woodly 200 an injection-mouldable hard material for drink and food containers, and Woodly 300 a coating material for take-out and other cardboard containers.
The material was recently announced the winner of New Wood, a competition for innovative wood-based solutions organised by Uusi puu -hanke (The New Wood project). It is set to hit the shelves of grocery shops next year, enveloping the potted herbs and greens of Järvikylä.
Negotiations and pilot projects with other potential clients are ongoing both in and outside Finland, according to Kaminen.
“Our goal is for this to become a cost-effective material. The raw material costs will initially be two to three times as high as for traditional [oil-based] plastics, but that’s purely a volume issue. We’re talking only about a fraction of the end product’s price, no more than a couple of cents,” he highlights.
A brand for consumers
Welmu International, he adds, is also intent on establishing the brand as a household name among consumers.
“We don’t want to be a faceless operator at the start of the value chain. We’re building the world’s first and most well known packaging materials brand, and five years from now we’ll be a globally recognised packaging materials brand – the first of its kind,” he declares.
Woodly has an advantage over the competition for three reasons, says Kaminen. It boasts the necessary mechanical properties, is not excessively expensive and requires no investments in new technologies or infrastructure from plastics manufacturers.
“There’s no need to invest in production facilities, to build new infrastructure to compete against plastics. That becomes a bottleneck for scaling up, making it more complicated to seek funding” he points out. “We’re looking to create partnerships, not to position ourselves as an enemy of the plastics industry.”
“The industry is what will eventually solve the plastic problem, and its infrastructure can be utilised in the process,” he tells.