Getting Greener is a video series bringing together diverse leaders to get their thoughts on the future of the green economy. We’re kicking things off with Mike Smith, founder of ZeroCo, who’s solving Australia's single-use plastic problem, one bathroom at a time.
June 30, 2021
Tom Ferrier, Greener: Now to the fun bit, let’s spend 60 seconds with you to really get to know you and find out what make you tick.
Mike Smith, ZeroCo: Righto, let’s go.
Tom: Hey Mike, when you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Mike: I wanted to be an MBA player, but I’m too short and I’m too white, I didn’t find that out until too late in life!
Tom: Getting Greener is a video series bringing together arrange of diverse leaders to get their thoughts on the future of the green economy. With Plastic Free July just around the corner, we’re kicking things off with Mike Smith, founder of ZeroCo, who’s looking to solve the plastic problem. Hey Mike, thanks for joining us.
Mike: Hello, thanks for having me!
Tom: Too easy, can you tell our viewers a little more about ZeroCo?
Mike: We are on a mission to eliminate single use plastic from every Aussie kitchen, bathroom, and laundry. We make planet friendly personal care and home cleaning products, stuff like laundry liquid and handwash, which we deliver directly to Aussie homes, minus all the single use plastic. Here’s something I prepared earlier. Inside your first box of ZeroCo you get a set of what we call “forever bottles” which are made from plastic pulled from the ocean, and a set of refill pouches, made from plastic waste diverted from landfill. So, you fill up this, with this, and you send this back to us to be cleaned and refilled. So we’re solving the single use plastic problem, and funding large scale ocean clean ups.
Tom: Mate I love it, and I love the simplicity of your message, which is really “clean your home, clean the ocean”. Tell us about thelightbulb moment that made you think, “hang on, this is something we should be doing more of, and I’m going to do it with ZeroCo.”
Mike: I had a business previously, a wine brand, that I sold in 2018 and I went on this crazy, once in a lifetime adventure around the world with my wife. We basically lived in a tent for the better part of 18 months. We trekked and hiked and camped our way through some super crazy remote places. We trekked along the border of Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Went to North Korea,went to these really obscure and off the beaten track places. And I was blown away by the amount of plastic, and just general rubbish that I saw in deep pockets of wilderness. That was when I started thinking more about solving this plastic problem. That was the big a-ha moment, when I went out and saw it with my own two eyes how devastatingly pervasive the plastic problem is, all around the world.
Tom: And all those places that you saw, which was the worst,where you saw the most plastic/ And then what have you seen here in Australiathat made you think “hang on, we’re a first world country and this is really disappointing.”
Mike: One of the crazy places was a little peninsular in the far north-east corner of Russia, it’s cut off by volcanoes and hardly anyone lives there. We drove along a beach for about 3 days, and the whole beach was littered with plastic, it was just mind boggling. Which is obviously washing up from Asian and other parts of the world. I thought to myself, “if there’s this much plastic in a place as remote as this, it’s absolutely crazy.” Then when I got back to Australia, I started digging around about the plastic economy and the recycling system, and I uncovered some pretty frightening statistics. The first one being that 85% of the plastic that we put into our recycling bins at home goes to landfill. We think it gets recycled, it doesn’t get recycled. The second one is that Australia is the largest producer of plastic waste per capita in the world. We product 59 kgs of plastic waste per person per year.Number one in the world. When you hear those 2 stats, I just thought, we need to do something about this.
Tom: Well, given that Australia is the largest per capita plastic polluter as you said, tell us a bit about Plastic Free July, and how people can get involved.
Mike: I think Plastic Free July is an awesome moment in time where lots of awareness is brought to the plastic problem. We are trying to use this month to educate people about the scale of the plastic problem. And not to bash people over head with daunting statistics and make them feel guilty, but to say, “this problem exists but there are a whole bunch of solutions, and ZeroCo is one of them.” We’re funding large scale ocean clean-ups and put it back into productive use, and have a completely closed loop system to stop people having to go to the shops and buy more plastic bottles in the first place. Our vision is that people will have the one bottle, and use I for life.
Tom: Hey let’s talk a bit about the green economy, what is that?
Mike: I think about the green economy not as this separate thing, but just as the future. We need to move to a new form of capitalism, based on doing the right thing for the planet. We live on one planet. For me it’s not the green economy, it’s just the future economy.
Tom: What do you think are some of the challenges we’ll face as a country, as a community, a global community, to get there?
Mike: Our economy is dominated by big businesses, and big business are big ships that take a long time to turn around. How do you rally the people in power to make rapid wholescale changes to their business models and their supply chains? And it can be done. We’re trying to show that a better model is scalable. If we, as a little tiny company can get to profitability,and we can prove that we can acquire customers, there’s no reason why Unilever,and Proctor and Gamble and the other big FMCG companies can’t do it too.
Tom: So, if it’s possible, and people are moving in that direction, what are the opportunities for businesses to take advantage of?
Mike: I think the companies that move quickly and move first are going to have massive first mover advantage. People want to be part of the solution, but there’s not a heap of mainstream options available at scale. So, the big companies who come in and do the right thing and car about the planet, they are going to get so much respect and loyalty from customers for genuinely doing the right things.
Tom: Spot on. Well thanks so much for your insights. It’s sogreat to hear from one of the leaders who is spearheading this movement,especially in the lead up to such a big month, plastic free July. So now to the fun bit, let’s spend 60 seconds to really get to know you, and what makes you tick.
Mike: Righto, let’s go
Tom: Hey Mike, when you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Mike: I wanted to be an MBA player, but I’m too short and I’m too white, I didn’t find that out until too late in life.
Tom: So, what was your biggest brush with fame?
Mike: I got to go kayaking with Malcolm Turnbull in Sydney Harbour, as part of this business.
Tom: Who was your hero growing up, and why?
Mike: I was a pretty massive Michael Jordan nerd.
Tom: If you were invisible, where would you go?
Mike: Into the boardroom of one of our big, global competitors.
Tom: Who’s your climate hero?
Mike: I’d have to say Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia.
Tom: And finally, what’s a favourite quote that guides your life?
Mike: Less talk, more rock.
Tom: Well Mike, this has been fantastic, thanks for sharing with everyone a bit more about you, and where you see the future of the green economy going. We can’t wait to follow ZeroCo,you guys are doing some amazing things.
Mike: Thanks so much, thanks for having me.