This month 10,000 used pouches made their way through our custom-built pouch cleaning and sanitising machine, proving our zero-waste business model can achieve scale. Hazzah!
The journey to get to this moment has been long, winding and full of pot-holes. It’s involved more than a few near misses and outright failures. And as with all great stories it’s also involved a dash of pioneering adventurism, perseverance in the face of adversity and contributions of countless brave souls willing to push beyond the boundaries of what has been done before.
So to mark this momentous occasion I thought I’d take the time to share with our community, supporters, friends, family, customers and shareholders the warts-and-all reality of getting to this moment.
In the beginning...
When we first set out on our audacious journey to solve the global single-use plastic problem (back in 2019) we had in mind a solution that would do two things:
- Pull plastic waste from the ocean, at scale, and turn it into “forever use” packaging. You can read about that half of the story here.
- Create a truly closed-loop supply chain that would stop single-use plastic being produced in the first-place, cutting off its supply at its origin. To do that we needed to build a machine capable of cleaning and sanitising our pouches, at scale.
Building a pouch cleaning machine
When we first set out to clean pouches, we looked high and low for a machine to buy “off the shelf”. We quickly realised such a thing didn’t exist. Go figure!
So then I said, let’s just design and build one ourselves...simple right? Wrong! How hard can it be? Really freaking hard so it turns out.
Our first stop was the epicentre of manufacturing in China, where we thought building a pouch cleaning machine would be a sure thing. We spent 6 months and $30,000 working with a company that we believed was building our machine, only to find out that they weren’t. At all. Just as we were about to jump on a plane to China to find out what the heck was going on, COVID hit and international travel became a thing of the past.
Awesome. 6 months wasted. $30,000 gone. Good work Mike!
It took me a few weeks to dust myself off after that little experience, but then, as is often the case when you push through the pain threshold, things start to look up. I met a guy called Jack (I’ll save the long story for another blog post some day).
Long story short, Jack’s a legend with a Mechanical Engineering degree and just the right amount of youthful naivete and enthusiasm to sign up to a mission as impossibly audacious as ours. So I offered him a job.
Day one: work out how to design and build a piece of machinery that’s never been made before, and don’t expect any great ideas from me because I don’t even know how to fix my lawn mower when it breaks down.
So Jack got to work. We talked, we brainstormed, we came up with hundreds of really bad ideas. But then slowly things started to take shape. Jack started to identify the key engineering challenges we needed to overcome. I kept saying “if we can put humans on the moon, we can work out how to clean a pouch”.
Then we met Phil and things really took off. There’s no other way to describe Phil than as a wonderfully wacky inventor. Phil has built all manner of crazy machines from solar powered air conditioners to aeroplanes to combustion engines.
And so over the past 12 months Jack and Phil have been working around the clock, day and night to do something that’s never been done before. They’ve overcome about 1,000 engineering s**tstorms. And they’ve done it all with good humour (and the occasional swear word) knowing that they’ve been working on a potentially game changing innovation.
During its development, in prototype phases we'd already spent time working out how to clean pouches manually, in small quantities, but doing it in large volumes, at scale, could not be proven until we had tens of thousands of pouches returned to us.
So while we’ve been busy making finishing touches to the machine, in the background, we’ve also been collecting and receiving what would be the critical mass of used pouches to prove that our machine could operate "at scale". From you guys!
Our pouch recovery machine officially went online in August 2021 and since then we've been running loads of tests, trials and experiments.
In the past few weeks we achieved two huge milestones. Finalising our pouch recovery machine and achieving the critical mass of returned pouches we needed.
So, how many pouches have we cleaned so far?
As of today, over 10,000 pouches will have passed through our world-first pouch cleaning machine. This is a hugely significant milestone in our journey to clean, sanitise and refill 1,000,000 used Zero Co pouches.
We expect this number to scale significantly in the months ahead and we will continue to report on results as they become available.
Our immediate goal is to scale our processes to a point where we can clean and sanitise up to 5,000 used pouches per day. From there, we aim to scale to 10,000.
How many pouches have actually been returned?
As at the date of writing this blog post, somewhere between 40,000 - 50,000 used pouches have been returned to us. Why don't we know the exact number? Short answer, we haven't got the technology or processes in place to do that just yet, but we're working on it! We've counted and scanned every return envelope that's made its way back to us, but we haven't counted every individual pouch inside each of those return envelopes (yet). Safe to say it's somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 pouches (we'll report back on this in a few months once we're a little further down the road on our technology solution).
We're incredibly excited to have this volume of pouches returned to us in such a short amount of time, especially given we're asking customers to collect 15 empty pouches before sending them back to us. Go you guys! Keep them coming, so we can keep cleaning.
How are we cleaning the pouches you send back to us?
Great question! Let’s talk about it in two parts.
- Our pouch cleaning machine; and
Firstly, and without giving all of our secrets away, we’ve designed and manufactured what we believe to be a world-first piece of technology to automate the process of cleaning and sanitising Zero Co used pouches and today, right here in this blog, we're so excited to officially unveil our big, beautiful, SUP-smashing, "pouch recovery" machine to the world. Here she is! Isn’t she a beauty!?
Throughout our inaugural ‘pouch clean at scale’ we selected random samples from these 10,000 pouches that have made their way through our pouch recovery machine. We sent them to an independent laboratory to undergo "microbial testing" to ensure that the pouches are sterilised and safe for refilling. We’re waiting on final results, but early indications look good.
After this, pouches from that cleaning batch have been refilled with Zero Co products, sent back to the independent testing laboratory (to double, triple, quadruple check for microbes) and will be sent out to a select group of customers for final feedback from our community. Over the next 3-6 months we will continue the commercialisation phase including further testing, set up and refining of the process ready for cleaning pouches at (even bigger) scale.
We’re also building a robust testing process which will include randomised ongoing microbial testing to ensure we meet the highest of quality and safety standards.
10 months after launching this business, there's still a mountain of work ahead of us, heaps of mistakes to make, lots of tests to run and an almost infinite number of operational complexities to iron-out and processes to optimise. But rest assured, we're working our little butts off every single day, moving as fast as we can, working as smart as we can, trying to scale our solution to the global plastic problem. As quick as we can.
The end game is to be able to clean and sanitise 1,000,000 used Zero Co pouches per year using less water than the average 4 person Aussie household.
We're not going to rest until we achieve that audacious goal and we'll continue to be radically transparent with you as even more of the journey unfolds!