Under the brand name “ajaa!”, Fabian Rupp and Raphael Stäbler, the young entrepreneurs and founders of 4e solutions GmbH from Filderstadt in the Stuttgart Region, are producing and selling storage boxes made from renewable raw materials. The containers made from bioplastic are manufactured entirely in Germany and can be fully recycled.
The company, founded in 2012, has already won several prizes for this product development, including “Best New Product Award 2013” and third place for “Biomaterial of the Year 2013”. In future, the range is to be extended to include baby products and special products for children.
Nowadays, products made from plastic and synthetic materials are part and parcel of our everyday life. They are particularly popular in kitchens, where they are used as storage boxes. They are available in (almost) all shapes, sizes and colours. They do have some advantages compared with containers made from metal, glass or ceramics: they are light, unbreakable and generally dishwasher-safe. Children can take their plastic lunchboxes to pre-school or to school. Because of the advantages they offer, one of the less positive properties of plastic boxes is often ignored, namely that plastic usually contains plasticisers and other harmful substances that have an adverse impact on our health. In addition, boxes like these are made from petroleum products and cannot be easily recycled. “For us it was a contradiction to buy groceries in organic shops and then pack the food into plastic boxes”. That’s how 33-year old industrial engineer Raphael Stäbler, one of the two founders of 4e solutions from Filderstadt, explains the decision to develop containers made from bioplastics.
Softness without plasticisers
Plasticisers are additives added to materials – in particular plastic materials – in order to make them stretchable, more flexible, more bendable and thus easier to process. Because these plasticisers are generally only bonded physically and not chemically to the materials, they detach easily and can be inhaled as a result. The plasticisers can also detach through contact with different fluids, in particular with fatty foods, thus becoming dissolved in the food. Phtalates and bisphenol A in particular are suspected of influencing hormone levels, leading to infertility in men and to genital malformation in children as well as to liver damage or behavioural problems. According to a new study, they are even suspected of increasing susceptibility to type 2 diabetes.
In the search for a completely safe and environmentally compatible alternative, Raphael Stäbler and his fellow student Fabian Rupp found what they were looking for in Heilbronn. A company there produces a biomaterial that behaves in exactly the same way as plastic and can be processed in a similar manner, but that does not have its negative properties. Instead of petroleum and plasticisers, it is made 100% from natural raw materials such as cellulose, minerals and waxes. The idea of using the biomaterial to make storage boxes for use in the kitchen led the two young entrepreneurs to develop the brand “ajaa!” in 2012. The name comes from Finnish and means “to move something” or “to move something along”. That fits perfectly with the motto of the two founders. “Everyone is always talking about the turnaround in energy policy, and we want to bring about a turnaround in raw materials”, explains Raphael Stäbler confidently.
He says that there is no cause for concern that using the bioplastic instead of the finite resource petroleum might lead to a scarcity of other resources for food. This is because cellulose can not only be extracted from sugar, but also for example from wood. Up until now, the boxes are made entirely from sugar cane leftovers from the production of liquor. Raphael Stäbler explains “Even if we were to replace all plastics with natural materials, we would only need 1.5% of the world’s cultivation areas”. In addition, the material used in the bioplastic is recyclable. Used boxes can be returned to the manufacturer, who then chops them up and uses them to make new products.
Attractive design and good carbon emissions
“So far, our boxes are available in four different sizes and four different colours in selected stores and online shops”, says Raphael Stäbler. It is important to him that the products are not only environmentally friendly and do not present any health risk, but also that they look good. According to Stäbler, “Lots of people want to do the right thing ecologically but don’t want to have to do without luxury”. The boxes, created by designers in Tübingen, have an elegant white colour with a subtle ring of colour running around the outside. Because carbon emissions are just as important to the company as design and function, the boxes are made in Germany. “In fact, production takes place entirely in Baden-Württemberg, which of course also makes it easier for us to control the quality”, explains Stäbler.
However, quality comes at a price, and currently the price for these boxes starts at 20 euros. “The main reason for this is that the material is four times more expensive than the plastic material normally used”, explains Raphael Stäbler. But he believes that the future will see a turnaround. He suspects that in five years, petroleum will have become so expensive that the alternatives are likely to be far more interesting. He believes that this development will lead to a point where the price of petroleum products and the price of ecological alternatives intersect. “In this respect, our development is coming at just the right time”, he says happily.
It would seem that the visitors to the Biofach trade fair in Nuremberg agree. They selected the environmentally friendly storage boxes from “ajaa!” as “Best New Product 2013” in the “Non Food” section. The product also won third place in “Biomaterial of the Year 2013” at the 6th International Conference on Industrial Biotechnology and Bio-based Plastics and Composites. “Of course we are very proud to have been awarded not one but two prizes by the expert public”, says Raphael Stäbler.
Search for investors by means of crowdfunding
Plans for the future involve extending the product range to include special offerings for babies and children. Particularly for babies, who put everything in their mouths, having products that do not pose a health risk is especially important, he explains. In order to be able to realise these plans, the young company is looking for investors via the www.crowdnine.de website. The site hosts a crowdfunding platform that offers small companies from the Stuttgart Region a chance to find local investors. “We have already found some investors, but unfortunately not enough yet”, explains Raphael Stäbler. “We need about 100,000 euros in order to extend our product range.” Once they have got the funds together, nothing will stand in the way of the turnaround in raw materials.