As modern society becomes more focused on climate action and the goal of reduced dependence on fossil carbon, one concept that has gained ground is a shift towards more of a “plant-based” economy. Arguably all food is already plant-based – for some things there is also an animal involved along the way. There are also already many important plant-based fiber products from paper to fabric to building materials. Plant-based fuels are becoming a huge category. Plant-based materials could also be an alternative for various other products that are now made with plastics. This would be a way to reduce our overall carbon footprint and begin to address some of the environmental issues ranging from microplastics pollution to the giant plastic island in the ocean. The purpose of this article is to highlight three interesting companies that have introduced plant-based consumer items that can reduce the use of plastic. All three of these business happen to have been founded by female entrepreneurs.
The first example is a company called EQUO which makes plant-based, disposable straws, cutlery and food containers. In this case they are making products that have a long history of use in Vietnam and something that was familiar to the founder, Marina Tran-Vu, because of her parents who grew up in that country. She has work experience with Unilever
They have significant sales in Vietnam and are also growing online, direct consumer sales in Canada and the US. Their tag line is, “keep the convenience, kick the plastic.” Their ambition is to do global marketing both directly and potentially through sales to the restaurant sector.
The second example is from a company called Here We Flo founded by Tara Chandra and Susan Allen who came up with the idea of making plant-based feminine hygiene products while working on their masters degrees at the London School of Economics. The story is that it all started with a conversation in the ladies room. They now have three product lines under their company Here We Flo, which they market with a certain sense of humor: “glo” for bladder leaks, “FLO” for menstrual cycle care (creatively sold in what looks like an ice cream container), and “XO!” for sexual wellness, which includes Regenerative Rubber vegan condoms. They obviously bring along a certain sense of humor as can also be seen in this promotional video. They also joke about being part of the “Feminist Mafia,” but they are fundamentally value-driven by environmental and justice issues.
Some of their plant materials come from Bamboo and corn fibre, and others are made with Cotton from suppliers like Remei, who traceably source from women farmers in Tanzania. A significant change in the feminine hygiene products is Here We Flo’s use of Natureflex cellulose and cornstarch films for their plant-based wrappers, in contrast to the petroleum-based plastic films (often non-recyclable) commonly used in conventional products. For their natural rubber latex supply, they are founding members of the Regenerative Rubber Initiative, whose purpose is to “sustainably and collaboratively” source rubber grown in agroforestry systems and produce with solar power. Here We Flo launched in the USA in 2020, where their products are available in Target
The third example is a company called HoldOn. Sheeva Sairafi is its co-founder and president. She came from a background in consumer products but left the corporate world eight years ago and has since led three mission-driven start-ups. Her goal for HoldOn was to develop more sustainable bags for food storage and trash management. She was confident that many consumers would like such a product, but knew that it would still need to have all the functionalities that consumers have come to expect (e.g. sufficient strength and flexibility, drawstrings, ziplock closures…). After two years of R&D they developed products based on formulations of the plant-based biopolymer PLA (Polylactic Acid) made from corn with some PBAT which is synthetic but also fully compostable. Their bags are certified home compostable and can also readily degrade in a worm bin. HoldOn is able to contract the manufacturing and they have had products on the market through their website since May of 2022. As of January they are also selling via Amazon and in April of 2023 their products will be available in Target stores.
Some consumers have a functioning compost pile or worm bin, but another option is a countertop appliance such as the Lomi Omni-processor which can be used to dry and grind things like food waste, fruit and vegetable trimmings and turn them into a garden mulch. The Lomi device can process both the HoldOn bags and the EQUO plant-based utensils described above.
The HoldOn bags are a good way to store organic waste until time to compost or process it in order to deal with issues such as odor or fruit flies, but they can also be used for non-organic waste. If these bags are used to send trash into the normal landfill, they would probably degrade and could generate methane, but they wouldn’t have the issue of microplastics. Many waste handlers are not able to work with compostable bags in something like a yard waste/organics system (e.g. the “green bin”). A consumer might have to check that with their own service provider.
Plastics will certainly continue to fulfill many purposes in modern society, and there are many creative approaches being taken to reduce their environmental footprints in terms of their production and end of life scenarios. But these two approaches demonstrate that plant-based options are fertile ground for product-by-product progress.