The image of the Albanian garbage mountain is always there
Sammy-Sebastian Tawakkoli has been thinking about sustainability all his life. Now he’s applying what he learnt at the School of Business, Economics and Law to increase plastic recycling. His new company Atomler has already attracted users from around the world.
We won’t create a better world by twiddling our thumbs. Sammy-Sebastian Tawakkoli realised this at the age of just seven. One of the comic books he used to read included a call to save the Amazon rainforests.
“That was when I first understood that people’s commitment could result in change,” he explains. “Since then, the idea has been a common feature of everything I do.”
Sammy-Sebastian had already studied design engineering before embarking on his studies at the MSc Programme in Innovation and Industrial Management at the School of Business, Economics and Law. In Gothenburg, he wanted to combine his product development expertise with his interest in environmental sustainability.
“I was quite critical of some of the theories taught at the School,” he recalls. “For example, I felt the need to explore the concept of growth, which I found hard to reconcile with sustainability.”
Since Sammy-Sebastian already had experience of student’s union work from his studies in Lund, the student’s union was an obvious place to start. In 2012, he and some friends started Handels Students for Sustainability (HaSS), which quickly attracted an excellent response.
“We got a big boost from the publicity surrounding sustainability issues. The School’s management supported us, and we started with a series of lectures titled ‘Why growth?’. We invited several big names such as Björn Stigson, Sasja Beslik, Åsa Romson and Anders Wikman. They all agreed to take part.”
It was our last semester and it felt great to do something big together.
The children on the garbage mountain
Sammy-Sebastian was driven by a desire to combine theoretical knowledge from lectures with real life. When one of his friends at HaSS came up with the idea of a study trip to Albania, he jumped at the chance.
“It was our last semester and it felt great to do something big together. Albania had just emerged from communism to become a market economy, and we decided to look at how the shift had affected the tourist industry, ownership and waste management.”
He will remember the images of Albania’s landfills forever. He saw how the huge mountains of waste attracted poor families, and how people struggled to make a living from what others had thrown away. The most heartbreaking thing was all the children playing among the rubbish.
“When we started Atomler, I was thinking about Albania. Our vision is to increase recycling rates so that landfills won’t be needed in the future.”
After graduating from the School, Sammy-Sebastian started working as an analyst at the online marketplace Tradera. But he couldn’t forget what he had seen in Albania. Not only had the project resulted in a report – which was presented at the School and during Almedalen Week – it had also meant a lot on a personal level.
“The whole project was based on curiosity, and there was a sense of pure joy in its implementation. I wanted to continue along that track.”
Sammy-Sebastian managed to persuade his employer to send him to Almedalen Week again to do a market survey. Perhaps Tradera could open up its platform to a wider range of recycled materials?
“The idea fell through the cracks, but I couldn’t let it go. I got my colleague Johannes Schill on board, and we started to investigate the market.”
Poor plastic recycling rates
The pair soon settled on plastics, since the material currently has a low recycling rate. While up to 80–90% of all paper, metal and glass is recycled, plastics remain at a more modest figure of 10–30%, depending on the fractions involved. Sammy-Sebastian and Johannes began to look into the reasons.
“Most of the waste is in the production chain, but there haven’t been enough buyers there. We found that there was no matching service to allow people to find each other. We thought we could use a marketplace to solve many of the basic problems: material prices, continuous flows and quality.”
When Sammy-Sebastian and Johannes started sketching out the idea, they were still working full-time. Sammy-Sebastian had changed jobs and was now working as an analyst at the business newspaper Dagens Industri. In 2019, they both had the opportunity to take a six-month leave of absence after successfully applying for Danske Bank’s ‘+impact’ accelerator programme.
“We still didn’t really manage to get the company going, and I had to go back to Dagens Industri. But everything changed in summer 2020.”
That was when they heard Atomler had received 16 months of funding from Vinnova and the Swedish Energy Agency. Sammy-Sebastian and Johannes were able to drop everything else and devote themselves fully to the company.
The platform was launched in May 2021, and 190 companies have signed up so far. Almost every country in Europe is represented.
“We’re seeing that demand is growing and the secondary market is starting to stabilise. Now we’re trying to raise more capital to develop the business.”
Think about what you want to leave behind on the planet.
Thanks to School of Business, Economics and Law
Sammy-Sebastian is extremely grateful for everything he learned during his time at the School. Without an understanding of how to run a company and how the innovation process is linked to bigger movements at the macro level, he would have been at a loss. He says that he has benefited immensely from all the strategies and theories he learnt about during his studies.
“If I were to pass something on to other students, it would be the importance of getting to know yourself and what drives you. What motivates you, and what do you want to leave behind on the planet? Think about what you want to do based on the answers to those questions. You don’t have to run a company – there are plenty of other ways to turn your ideas into reality.”
BY: LOTTA ENGELBREKTSON