Picture of two people walking in the forest
Photo: Henrik Trygg/Stockholm Archipelago

How this Stockholm-based company is using the Nordic forest to end plastic pollution

The impact makers of Stockholm. By Invest Stockholm

How can we stop plastic from overrunning our planet? That’s the question Dr Eric Zhang was faced with after visiting a restaurant in China on a business trip in the mid-00s. Eric was shocked to see the plastic used to serve his meal afterwards being thrown into a nearby river. It led him to question the very nature of plastics and how they were polluting not just his homeland China, but all continents on earth.

Based on his own experience of industrial processes and product development, as well as the current academic research, Eric began seeking new ways to combat the issue of plastic pollution. He felt that Stockholm, with its innovative atmosphere and flourishing startup space, would be the opportune place to start and grow his business.

Eric had first moved to Sweden in the 1980s when he undertook his PhD at KTH Royal Institute of Technology. Following his studies, he worked with some of Sweden’s leading paper companies, and in 2004 was transferred to the Asia Pacific headquarters of timber, pulp and paper manufacturer SCA. It was here he would witness the perturbing reality of plastic pollution firsthand.

He moved back to Sweden and embarked on a period of brainstorming, out of which emerged the idea to take fibers from the forest and make them more plastic-like. By modifying wood fibers, they can be used as the key component in bio-based plastics and therefore reduce reliance on fossil-based plastics. In 2016, with support from Sweden’s innovation agency VINNOVA, he patented a unique technology and Biofiber Tech was born.

Turning to nature for solutions

Created from a sustainably managed Nordic forest, Biofiber Tech’s bio-based products are intended to be used in existing processes by both the paper and plastic industries. The wood fiber can be molded, formed, and shaped to meet the customers’ needs, and used to produce anything from furniture to other consumer goods.

Biofiber’s latest product, FibraQ launched in March 2021 with the vision to create a material that mimics plastic fossil granules in terms of format, density, and functionality. Wood fibers typically absorb water, but with modification the fibers used to create FibraQ become both hydrophobic and compatible. The granulate can then be redispersed in plastic compounding processes.

“Implementing this technology can have a huge effect on our carbon footprint,” says Eric. “Many brands have ambitious sustainability goals but there aren’t materials available to help them reach them. FibraQ provides a drop-in solution that is both scalable and cost-effective. At the moment, you can blend up to 51%. This is the first step in reaching a 100% carbon-neutral solution.”

Currently in a phase of intensive market testing, Eric’s goal for the near future is to scale up Biofiber Tech and expand globally.

“There’s a great talent pool, investor network and infrastructure in Stockholm that makes this level of growth achievable,” he says.

His long-term vision to replace fossil-based plastic with carbon-neutral wood fibers goes beyond benefits for the environment. It also creates new opportunities, in terms of both products and jobs for the rapidly declining paper industry.

“As digital media has become the new forum for consuming media, demand for paper has largely declined and caused paper mills to go out of business. With our technology, we can transform the paper produced by paper mills into something that replaces fossil-based plastic. We can save this industry while making our planet a less polluted place.”