A Vancouverite’s Quest for Earth-Friendly Plastics

“I believe we have the potential to build a billion-dollar company here in B.C.”

Over a decade ago, Toby Reid was working as an e-commerce specialist at Mountain Equipment Co-op. He also loved to surf, but the more time he spent on our coastal beaches, the more he was confronted by an ever-growing abundance of plastic littering the ocean. The unwelcome sight inspired him to take a closer look at MEC’s plastic procurement and supply policies; a light bulb flicked on. In 2006, three years after leaving the co-op, he launched Solegear Bioplastics.

I saw a need for bio-based, fully compostable plastic,” Reid says in his third-floor office on West Hastings Street, in the high-tech incubator corridor near Woodward’s. “I met a chemical engineer, and a day later we were developing tests.”

Since founding Solegear nine years ago, Reid has been working to revolutionize the petroleum-based industry through a range of new-age durable plastics derived from plant-based resins and environmentally benign chemicals. These so-called bioplastics, which Solegear has made into packaging trays and smartphone cases, are designed to be as compostable as pizza boxes and carrot peelings.Like many Vancouver entrepreneurs, Reid, 42, originally financed his start-up by leaning on friends and family, then dipped into government funding. Eventually, he approached the city’s venture capitalists; even today, his conversations are richly sprinkled with investment-pitch aphorisms like, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” To date, Solegear has netted $2 million in federal funding and $5 million in private capital from Yaletown Venture Partners and Best Buy Capital.Reid says the next phase is to go public; he hopes the IPO will generate another $3 million. That infusion will allow Solegear to roll out a new range of products including medical supplies and other packaging applications. Reid says he’s also on the cusp of announcing a major partnership with a toy manufacturer. “I believe we have the potential to build a billion-dollar company here in B.C.”Joe Hruska, sustainability consultant with the Ontario-based Canadian Plastics Industry Association, cautions that bioplastics are still in their infancy, accounting for less than four percent of Canadian production. (The industry as a whole is worth $17 billion a year in this country.) Multinationals like Germany’s BASF, founded in 1865, have begun to test the market, but he believes all firms face significant challenges, including confusion from consumers about where compostable plastics fit alongside recycling and waste disposal.The scale of the problem is vast. The conventional-plastics industry churns out nearly 300 million tonnes of the stuff annually, overrunning landfills and contributing to ghastly continents of trash, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, floating off the west coast of North America. A study by the California-based Association for the Advancement of Science examined more than 190 coastline countries and found that an estimated eight million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean each year; once there, they photodegrade into ever-smaller particulates, are swallowed by marine animals, and enter the food chain and, ultimately, us.Yet Reid is undaunted. He relishes the David-versus-Goliath nature of the struggle, even as he wishes Solegear were further along in its development. “We’re trying to disrupt a well-entrenched petroleum-based plastics sector,” he says. “It can be frustratingly slow.”