To illustrate the environmental benefits of his company's products, Solegear's Toby Reid literally eats plastic. "They taste awful," he says of the small round pellets marketed as Polysole. "But they're pretty darn safe."
It helps that the pellets in question are bio-plastic - 100 per cent non-toxic, biodegradable and made from organic material. Mr. Reid hopes Polysole will transform the plastics industry from petroleum to plant-based.
It's an ambitious plan that he says is in his blood. "My grandfather ran a tea plantation in India, and my dad was in the peanut business in Canada, so with agricultural entrepreneurialism in my family it seems fitting that I would go in the direction of growing plastics from plants," said Mr. Reid.
Mr. Reid first studied biology in university but switched gears to a commerce degree. Straight out of school, he landed a position at RBC Dominion Securities, but found himself increasingly dissatisfied. He quit and took a job with Mountain Equipment Co-op. During his five years at MEC, he gathered knowledge about plastics in their supply chain - how they were made and disposed of - and became interested in durable, high-performance and completely compostable plastic.
"I thought it would be interesting to see if we could come up with some molecules that were compostable, because that's all plastics are - molecules with bonds between them that are intense," he says. "If you leave these molecules in the environment they take 500 to 1,000 years to break down. So when it comes to bio-plastics, you're just designing a different molecule that will break down in a composting environment in under a year."
In 2006 Mr. Reid teamed with a chemical engineer and forged a relationship with the University of British Columbia, which became the site of his product development. "We pay UBC to use their labs and they do all our testing for us," he said. Four years later they created Polysole, a "high performance" bio-plastic made entirely from natural materials and organic additives, and Traverse, a hybrid material made from conventional plastic combined with rice husks, hemp husks and flax fibre.
"What we do is we sell plastic pellets to people who melt them down and make them into stuff," Mr. Reid says. Polysole breaks down using a catalytic process involving the presence of heat, soil, micro-organisms and water, which will turn the material into soil and water vapour. "The soil can then be used to grow more biomass again, which then gets converted into the feedstocks that make the bio-plastic, which can then go to make the products - the cycle in perpetuity," he says.
Traditional recyclable plastics get downcycled and can only be reused between two to four times, "if you're lucky," Mr. Reid says. "Our product is to me the definition of a truly recyclable product. It can be recycled forever."
Introduced last year, Solegear quickly garnered awards and attention, including Frost & Sullivan's New Product Innovation Award and awards from the Canadian Youth Business Foundation and the British Columbia Innovation Council. Since then, Mr. Reid and his small team have been working to attract investors and sell to manufactured goods companies. Their focus is durable consumer goods like children's toys, sippy cups, sunglasses, cosmetic and health products.
Bio-plastic has become high-profile of late, with Coca-Cola's plant-derived "PlantBottle" and PepsiCo's subsequent announcement of their own plant-based bottle. But Mr. Reid says his focus on durable, high-performance products is aimed to create a niche in a market that isn't being served. Most mainstream bio-plastics are used in packaging, and are price focused, he says. "We stay away from that. As some bio-plastics companies zig into those kind of markets, we zag into higher-end markets and we think we can build a premium brand off those kind of applications."
The company has made some inroads, with modest orders to a few different companies, including a multi-billion dollar US personal care company and a multi-billion dollar Quebec diversified industrial company. Mr. Reid says we will see products with his materials in them on shelves by the fall of this year, but admits it will take time for their products to be incorporated on a large scale.
"It's like where iPhones were a few years ago. People were like, 'I'm not sure I'm ready to use that yet.' That's where we are in the bio-plastics industry," Mr. Reid says. He adds he's in it for the long-term, and that with good products and good marketing, he will be able to remain competitive in a rapidly growing market, where more than 50 per cent of current plastic products could be made with bio-plastic.
"Whether we're going to be a 20 billion dollar company it's hard to say at this point," he says. "But I will say, the plastics industry is the largest manufacturing materials market in the world. Huge. Then when you add the benefits . . . I think then you see a lot of compelling arguments."