Mike Smith is on a mission to rid the planet of single-use plastic through Zero Co.
When Mike Smith and his wife set off on an 18-month trekking and camping adventure in some of the world’s most remote wilderness areas, he expected to connect with nature, challenge himself physically and enjoy plenty of peace and quiet. What he didn’t expect was an abundance of single-use plastic tarnishing otherwise pristine places.
Like many great ideas, Zero Co (who make refillable home cleaning and personal care products out of plastic pulled out of the ocean) was born out of an ‘a-ha moment’. For Smith, that moment came while staring at a landscape scattered with plastic waste, despite being hours away from civilisation.
“When you go to busy, dense population centres like cities in China, India or Indonesia you kind of expect to see waste everywhere, but when you get out into the wilderness and see plastic, it’s pretty heartbreaking. I saw with my own eyes how devastatingly pervasive the plastic problem is.”
"When you get out into the wilderness and see plastic, it’s pretty heartbreaking. I saw with my own eyes how devastatingly pervasive the plastic problem is.”
Despite having six months left of his trip, the cogs were already turning in Smith’s head. A self-confessed “start-up junkie”, he’d sold his previous business before packing his bags and boarding the plane, with an inkling that the idea for his next business might be born out of his travels. He used the time he had left to formulate a business plan that would allow him to “solve the plastic problem”.
And when he returned home to Australia, he immediately got to work.
“The big insight for me was that to solve the plastic problem we need to do two things: first of all, we need to stop making more single-use plastic. As long as we keep making more and more virgin plastic and using it for a couple of weeks and chucking it away, the problem’s never going to end.
“The second thing is to figure out a way to fund large-scale ocean clean ups and get all the plastic out of the ocean. So I came back and realised that was the business model, figuring out a way to do both of those things simultaneously.”
The first step for Smith was figuring out which product category he wanted to tackle. He did this by spending “crazy amounts of time at the supermarket following people around awkwardly, watching what they were buying”.
Increasingly, he found himself being led to the last few aisles, where the personal care and cleaning products are kept.
“What I learned from hanging out in those aisles is that there’s nothing sexy about that category, there’s nothing cool about toilet cleaner. But, they are everyday essentials that every single household on the entire planet uses. And they are literally floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall, single-use plastic products.”
But Smith wasn’t just focused on producing environmentally-friendly plastic bottles. To succeed, the products inside the bottles had to be sustainable, yet still perform as well as – if not better – than the big-name supermarket products too.
For the following 12 months he engaged a team of industrial chemists to formulate products that got the job done without using bleach, palm oil or petri-chemicals. The final result was a range of plant and mineral based formulas that were all independently lab tested.
While Smith had poured his life savings into building Zero Co, the next step of the project was to launch a Kickstarter campaign. Not just for financial reasons, but because he was aiming to build a people-powered solution to the plastic problem.
“This is not just about us trying to solve the problem, but about rallying a large group of people who give a shit about the planet to change their behaviour and act. The best way to do that was to invite people to come on the journey with us, literally from day one.”
“This is not just about us trying to solve the problem, but about rallying a large group of people who give a shit about the planet to change their behaviour and act."
The goal was to raise AU$250,000 but they finished with AU$743,000 worth of funds from the Australian public, making it the biggest Kickstarter campaign of its kind at the time, which Smith describes as “mind-blowing”.
“We went straight to Indonesia and did our first ocean cleanup where we pulled 6000 kilograms of plastic out of the Java Sea, which is equivalent to about 500,000 water bottles worth of plastic. We processed that plastic and made it into our first generation ‘forever bottles’ and officially started shipping products in November 2020.
“Since then, we’ve signed up 31,000 Australian households, which is incredible! The goal is to completely eliminate single-use plastic in every Aussie kitchen, laundry and bathroom and while 31,000 is a crazy achievement in just a few months, we’re still a long way away from our big, audacious goal of solving the problem totally.”
Despite the scale of the plastic problem, with Zero Co having such momentous growth in a short time, Smith feels positive about the future.
“Thinking about some of the other environmental issues we have, like climate change, there’s still people who want to argue whether it’s real or not and it’s quite a vitriolic debate. But we’re in a good position because there’s nobody out there going ‘plastic is awesome and we should keep putting more of it in the ocean’. Nobody is saying that! Well, I haven’t heard anybody saying that,” he laughs.
“We’re one step closer to getting to a solution, so that’s a really positive thing. The challenge we’ve got is changing consumer behaviour and shopping patterns. And we’re trying to do that by making it as easy as possible for people, by delivering direct to Aussie homes, by paying for the return shipping on the refillable pouches and even looking at eventually going into supermarkets or having our own retail presence for people who don’t like shopping online.”
But households aren’t Zero Co’s only goal. This Plastic Free July they’ve launched their Work Waste Challenge, broadening their war on waste from just the households of Australia to workplaces too. They’re aiming to get businesses small and large on board by having them pledge against using single-use plastic and encourage their employees to ditch it at work and home.
At the time of writing, they’ve already had 77 businesses sign up, most notably Australia Post, LinkedIn, Gumtree, Arnotts (and WorkForClimate of course!). Once pledged, businesses get access to a discounted office box and their staff all get a unique discount code for $20 off their first box of products to use at home too, which Zero Co tallies on a leaderboard, tracking which companies are having the greatest employee takeup.
Smith’s advice for employees wanting to drive change in their workplace is to rally other people in their team or around the business to join together.
“It’s about putting your hand up and saying, ‘let’s do this’, being a leader, being vocal and inspiring the rest of the office to join you. That’s how you affect change.”
Your business can pledge to join the Work Waste Challenge via Zero Co’s website. But don’t stop there! WorkForClimate supports employees who want to help their business fix the future. Subscribe to our newsletter and take the first step to making climate action your day job, without quitting your day job.
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