The world may never reach zero waste, especially as production and consumption of convenient consumer products and their packaging surges. But a couple of guys in British Columbia are giving their best shot at eliminating a sizable chunk of that trash, focusing on household cleaning products, an approximate $248 billion industry.
Billions of plastic containers that hold these products are dumped in landfills globally each year, with some broken down microplastics flowing into oceans. Then there’s the product residue. Think of the last drops of liquid in the bottom of the jug, and the gobs that spill over the sides during pouring. They add up, often leaking into the environment and rendering the plastic packaging non-recyclable.
Those two Canadians, Tru Earth co-founders Brad Liski and Ryan McKenzie, have a twofold plan to help mitigate the problems. They package household cleaning products in thin cardboard envelopes, eliminating single-use plastic. And they developed a format to nix the sticky residue obstacle – tiny strips of highly concentrated, dissolvable cleaning agents as an alternative to liquid.
The partners started with laundry detergent, making a strip the size of an iPhone that does about a month’s worth of loads for a family of four. Besides eradicating the need to ship heavy liquids, saving money and CO2 emissions, it’s helping to reduce the roughly $2.2 billion in wasted detergent in the U.S. alone, (about 1/3 of what’s produced), Liski says.
On the packaging front, Tru Earth has purged about 9 million plastic containers in three years. In that time, it has grown its line to 41 products— from a multipurpose cleaner to toilet bowl cleaner, also both in a strip format—to reusable wool dryer balls. All packaging is OACD-certified as biodegradable, meaning 85 percent biodegrades in the first 30 days and 100 percent eventually breaks down in aerobic and anaerobic environments.
Named Top BC Exporter of the Year in 2021, the young company generating over $50 million in sales ships to 78 countries. Consumers buy online or in one of over 6,000 retail stores— Kroger, Publix, and Giant are among the largest.
Liski credits the “eco-strips” (detergent, multipurpose cleaner, and toilet bowl cleaner) for solving a couple of problems.
“Conventional products (especially laundry detergent) rarely come with clear instructions on how much to use. People tend to overdose. The excess [in the form of] gray water, goes into rivers and streams, usually untreated.
“By eliminating liquid pours and delivering precise dosing, we control chemicals going into water streams to maintain the quality of drinking water and protect marine life,” Liski says.
The toilet bowl cleaner, which is growing fastest in sales, is designed to address issues specific to this application.
Conventional products typically come in a squirt bottle, which is limited in size in order to fit in a toilet bowl.
“That’s why they are commonly sold in a three pack. Our package of 12 cleans is the equivalent of two plastic jugs, but without excess packaging, and with no plastic,” Liski says.
Consumers drop the strip in a reusable bottle with hot water, spray the bowl, and scrub with a brush.
Liski has a two-part pitch to retailers: the products are environmentally-friendly and what consumers say they want. But they also save space. Twelve packages of the laundry detergent take the same shelf space as one jug and require less than 10 percent of the warehouse space.
Consumer products distributor Neal Brothers Foods has sold “green” goods for over 30 years and has added Tru Earth’s line to its inventory. The company began seeing more consumers want these kinds of products, and retailers responding, a couple of decades ago.
“We always believed that every-day products could be made better, healthier, and more environmentally friendly. As we sourced more of these types of products our retail partners were eager to sell them. When we presented Tru Earth, they were as excited as we were to offer a brand that would have a compelling, environmentally friendly impact, including low- to no end-of-life packaging,” says Peter Neal, president Neal Brothers Foods.
Tru Earth requires manufacturers to disclose all ingredients to ensure they meet its product claims (biodegradable, hypoallergenic, phosphate-free, free of microplastics, etc). That expectation may sound like a given, but manufacturers are not mandated to reveal all ingredients, and transparency remains an issue.
“It’s important to have an understanding of what happens along the whole supply chain. We want to know where a product comes from, where it goes, and how it comes back to be managed at the end of life,” Liski says.
Tru Earth is Climate Smart certified (requiring climate assessments and ESG audits; is a Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) manufacturing facility (requiring a product review process similar to what drug companies undergo); and undergoes a Sedex Members Ethical Trade Audit (SMETA) (requiring compliance with ethical trade practices in global supply chains).
The biggest challenge has been in changing consumers’ behavior.
“They want to be more environmental in their practices but need products to facilitate that change. We have spent millions on education trying to accomplish this,” Liski says.
It begins with the transparency issue—making sure consumers know products’ makeup and can identify legitimately eco-friendly ingredients.
Tru Earth also facilitates educational programs that go beyond teaching about products and packaging, including an Ocean Heroes curriculum awakening elementary school students to the effects of plastic pollution on oceans and the importance of using less waste-generating products.
The startup’s website and newsletter inform on topics from how to advocate for low- and zero-waste household products to easy ways to change habits to reduce waste.
“So, it stops being about creating ‘me too’ products, and it starts being about making change, and education is a big part of that,” says Liski, who has a side job: mentoring PhD students and graduates at a University of British Columbia innovation lab working to develop carbon emissions-reducing products. He guides them in getting products to market, and in creating messaging around those products.
Tru Earth also works with global conservation organization Ocean Wise, supporting its program that invites the public to help clean up plastic pollution in their communities.
Allies like Tru Earth are critical to facilitating change that the nonprofit is aiming to achieve, says Larissa Balicki, manager Ocean Wise Shoreline Cleanup.
“We need solutions like Tru Earth eco-strips to innovate packaging and products that avoid creating the 13,650 tons of plastic that needs to be collected and either landfilled or recycled,” she says.
There’s more work to do to get more products on shelves.
“It will take many small hinges to swing open a big door of change. It’s the consumers who drive this. They are the ones demanding the eradication of plastic and (product) waste and are pushing us to innovate. We will listen and create true fans,” Liski says.
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