The world may never achieve zero waste, especially as the production and consumption of convenient consumer products and their packaging increases. But a few guys in British Columbia are doing their best to eliminate a good deal of that waste, focusing on household cleaning products, an industry worth around $248 billion.
Billions of plastic containers containing these products are dumped in landfills around the world every year, with some broken down microplastics leaking into the oceans. Then there are the product residues. Think about the last drops of liquid at the bottom of the jug and the drops spilling over the sides when pouring. They add up, often seeping into the environment and rendering plastic packaging unrecyclable.
These two Canadians, Tru Earth co-founders Brad Liski and Ryan McKenzie, have a two-pronged plan to help alleviate the problems. They package household cleaning products in thin cardboard envelopes, eliminating single-use plastic. And they developed a format to remove the barrier of sticky residue – tiny strips of highly concentrated, soluble cleaning agents as an alternative to liquid.
The partners started with laundry detergent, creating an iPhone-sized strip that does about a month’s worth of loads for a family of four. In addition to eliminating the need to ship heavy liquids, saving money and CO2 emissions, it helps reduce the estimated $2.2 billion in wasted detergent in the United States alone (about 1 /3 of what is produced), says Liski.
On the packaging front, Tru Earth has purged approximately 9 million plastic containers in three years. During this period, it has expanded its range to 41 products, from all-purpose cleaner to toilet bowl cleaner, also both in strip form, to reusable wool dryer balls. All packaging is OACD certified as biodegradable, meaning 85% biodegrades in the first 30 days and 100% eventually breaks down in aerobic and anaerobic environments.
Named Best Exporter of the Year in British Columbia in 2021, the young company generating over $50 million in sales ships to 78 countries. Consumers shop online or at one of more than 6,000 retail stores – Kroger, Publix and Giant are among the biggest.
Liski credits “eco-bands” (detergent, all-purpose cleaner, and toilet bowl cleaner) with solving a few problems.
“Conventional products (especially laundry detergents) rarely come with clear instructions on how much to use. People tend to overdose. Excess [in the form of] gray water, goes into rivers and streams, usually untreated.
“By eliminating liquid spills and providing precise dosing, we control chemicals entering waterways to maintain drinking water quality and protect marine life,” Liski says.
The fastest growing toilet bowl cleaner is designed to solve problems specific to this application.
Conventional products usually come in a spray bottle, which is limited in size to fit in a toilet bowl.
“That’s why they’re usually sold in a three-pack. Our 12-pack cleanses is the equivalent of two plastic jugs, but without excessive packaging and without plastic,” says Liski.
Consumers deposit the strip in a reusable bottle with hot water, spray bowl and scrub with a brush.
Liski offers a two-part pitch to retailers: products are environmentally friendly and what consumers say they want. But they also save space. Twelve packets of laundry detergent take up the same shelf space as a pitcher and take up less than 10% of the storage space.
Consumer products distributor Neal Brothers Foods has been selling “green” products for over 30 years and has added the Tru Earth line to its inventory. The company started to see more and more consumers wanting these types of products and retailers responded to this a few decades ago.
“We have always believed that everyday products could be improved, healthier and more environmentally friendly. As we sourced more of these types of products, our retail partners were eager to sell them. When we introduced Tru Earth, they were as excited as we were to come up with a brand that would have a compelling, eco-friendly impact, including packaging with low to no end of life,” 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, miplastic cultures, etc.). This expectation may seem obvious, but manufacturers are not required to reveal all ingredients and transparency remains an issue.
“It is important to understand what is happening throughout the 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 its life,” says Liski.
Tru Earth is Climate Smart certified (requiring climate assessments and ESG audits; is a Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) manufacturing facility (requiring a product review process similar to that undergone by pharmaceutical companies); and undergoes a Sedex Member Ethical Trading Audit (SMETA) (requiring adherence to ethical trading practices in global supply chains).
The biggest challenge has been changing consumer behavior.
“They want to be more environmentally friendly in their practices, but need products to facilitate this change. We’ve spent millions on education to try to accomplish that,” Liski says.
It starts with the issue of transparency – making sure consumers know what products are made of and can identify legitimately eco-friendly ingredients.
Tru Earth also offers educational programs that go beyond teaching about products and packaging, including an Ocean Heroes program educating elementary school students about the effects of plastic pollution on the oceans and the importance of using less waste-generating products.
The startup’s website and newsletter informs on topics ranging from how to advocate for low- or zero-waste household products to simple ways to change habits to reduce waste.
“So it’s not about creating ‘me too’ products anymore, and it’s about making changes, and education is a big part of that,” says Liski, who has a side job: mentoring PhD students and graduates from a University of British Columbia Innovation Lab working to develop products that reduce carbon emissions. It guides them in bringing products to market and in creating messages around these products.
Tru Earth also works with global conservation organization Ocean Wise, supporting its program which invites the public to help clean up plastic pollution in their communities.
Allies like Tru Earth are key to facilitating the change the nonprofit aims to achieve, says Larissa Balicki, manager of Ocean Wise Shoreline Cleanup.
“We need solutions like Tru Earth eco-friendly strips to innovate packaging and products that avoid creating the 13,650 tonnes of plastic that must be collected and landfilled or recycled,” she says.
There is still work to be done to put more products on the shelves.
“It will take many small hinges to open a big door of change. Consumers are the driving force. They are the ones who demand the eradication of plastic waste and (products) and drive us to innovate. We’re going to listen and create real fans,” Liski says.