From the Caribbean to the Baltic, too much seaweed and microalgae are clogging up the water. Now, both are picked along with crops to make ingredients for food and beauty products.
Mari Granstrom says that her love of scuba diving made her aware of the problem of toxic microalgae blooms in the Baltic Sea, which is still going on.
The outbreaks happen when tiny cyanobacteria, which are also called blue-green algae, suddenly multiply quickly and spread out on top of the water for hundreds of metres or even kilometres.
It is a type of marine suffocation that is also known as “eutrophication,” and it is a major environmental concern in the Baltic Sea. Official numbers show that it can be found in 97% of the sea’s area.
The blooms hurt other marine life by reducing the amount of oxygen in the water, making the water less clean, and blocking out light.
Too many nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus from man-made fertilisers, are getting into the water, which is causing the problem. The rivers of Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, and Sweden carry these things into the sea.
Even though the use of these fertilisers has gone down in recent years, the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission, an international group that works to improve the quality of water in the Baltic Sea, says that “the effect of these measures has not yet been seen.”
About six years ago, Finnish biochemist Ms. Granstrom decided to take care of the problem herself. She would gather the microalgae and use it to make parts for a wide range of products. The extracts from microalgae can be used in things like detergents, animal feed, packaging, and even as a plastic replacement.
This is because there is a growing trend to use seaweed instead of oil-based ingredients for these kinds of things.
“I saw or maybe couldn’t see how it was hurting the marine ecosystem, so I decided to do something about it,” she says. “There was too much pointing of the finger and not enough doing.”
Ms. Granstrom says that she worked on the project for a long time as a hobby. In 2019, she started a business called Origin by Ocean (ObO). She is the head of the company.
The business has gotten both private investment and money from the European Union. It is now continuing with a pilot production plan and hopes to be fully running by 2025 or 2026.
Microalgae are collected by ObO off the coast of Finland, where they are sucked up by boats and then taken out of the water. The company also brings in sargassum seaweed from the Caribbean country of the Dominican Republic.
For a number of years, this seaweed has caused huge blooms in that area. Every year, Ms. Granstrom says, 25 million tonnes of sargassum grow in the Caribbean.
“People can’t fish, and it hurts tourism. We buy a few tonnes of sargassum from the Dominican Republic right now, and this number will go up.”
The company also gets unwanted seaweed from the waters of Portugal and Spain.
At a place in northern Finland, the pilot processing for ObO is done. It uses a biorefinery process called “Nauvu,” which is patented, to separate algae into many useful materials.
Then, these are sold to companies that make food, cosmetics, textiles, packaging, and farming supplies.