In 2017, a video showing researchers removing a plastic straw from a sea turtle’s nose went viral. Coming at a time when the world was waking up to the consequences of single-use plastics, the video had a stunning effect, galvanizing large companies like Starbucks and American Airlines to eliminate their use of plastic straws.
The heightened awareness around single-use plastics compelled the Enactus National Champions from Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada to question what other single-use plastics might be hurting the environment — those less talked about than straws or plastic bags.
The team entered a circular design challenge focused on plastics and discovered that bottles for toiletries such as shampoo, conditioner and body wash can’t actually be recycled because they are too small, have a low quality grade of plastic and are often still contaminated with soap. As a result, these join the more than 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste that exists worldwide, according to a 2017 study published in Science Advances — 79 percent of which is in landfills.
For the Enactus Wilfrid Laurier University team, the solution was clear: Remove plastic from the picture altogether. To do this, it created EarthSuds — solid, single-use tablets of shampoo, conditioner and body wash. The tablets are sulfate and paraben free, cruelty free, vegan and lather just like liquid products. “Due to their solid form, they are packaged in sustainable paper packaging or tin containers — 100 percent plastic free!” says Laura Allen, faculty advisor for the Enactus National Champion team.
However, the team didn’t stop there. In Canada, adults with developmental disabilities have an employment rate of less than 30 percent, which makes them one of the most excluded groups in the workforce. “At Enactus Laurier, we believe in more than just creating environmental impact,” says Allen. “We constantly look as to how we can empower individuals with diverse abilities.”
Seeking to create a solution that addressed not only environmental challenges but also social ones, the National Champions partnered with Mighty Hawks, an organization that cultivates financial literacy skills among adults with developmental disabilities. With the organization’s help, EarthSuds created a work readiness program and hired eight individuals with developmental disabilities, giving them the experience they need to enter the workforce.
As with any new venture, there were challenges. “We’ve learned firsthand the complexity of scaling an enterprise,” says Allen. “Facing these challenges has taught us to be flexible to accomplish our goals and to never deter from our mission.”
The National Champions’ perseverance has paid off, resulting in a massive impact that has allowed them to reach more than 2.6 million people across the world via social media, generate more than $66,000 in revenue and eliminate the need for more than 10 thousand plastic bottles.
EarthSuds was bolstered by partnerships with local incubators Laurier Launchpad and the Accelerator Center, which provided co-working spaces, access to services and expert mentorship to help grow the business. The long-term goal, Allen says, is for EarthSuds to become the staple travel soap for consumers around the world. “We plan to add new product lines to create a truly 100 percent plastic-free bathroom,” she notes.
Wilfrid Laurier University will represent Canada at the Enactus World Cup starting 14 October, where the team will present their project alongside 32 other Enactus National Champions. There, they will demonstrate their innovation in business and its impact on the world as they vie for their chance to become the Enactus World Champion.
Learn more and register to attend Enactus World Cup at enactus.org/worldcup.