For nine years, Vancouver's Brianne Miller travelled the world working as a marine biologist. Through her fieldwork, she has observed how plastics that entered ocean ecosystems were wreaking havoc on fish, turtle, and marine-mammal populations.
The sheer volume of plastic in the seas was driven home to her while she was on a boat leaving Sipadan Island on her way to a popular diving site. The island is off the east coast of Borneo.
"If you're looking out, the ocean looks like it's a pristine, blue tropical paradise," Miller stated. "As you turn your gaze downward, it's a sea of plastic and garbage: everything from leftover food and whole bananas to shoes and straws and a whole lot of food packaging. That was one image that stood out in my mind."
In recent years, there have been several stories in the news about beached whales with plastic bags and other debris in their stomachs. And she's witnessed plastics piling up on a remote beach in Haida Gwaii where no human could be seen for kilometres.
"Plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces," Miller explained. "Then these smaller pieces are ingested by animals that are lower on the food chain."
She pointed out that these "microplastics" leach harmful chemicals into smaller fish and other sea creatures. They are eaten by larger marine animals, where these toxins bio-accumulate. The fishing industry often targets larger species, which has consequences on human health.
"I wanted to tackle that problem with a practical concrete solution that people could implement in their everyday lives," Miller said.
Miller creates a store without packaging
This was the impetus behind the founding of Zero Waste Market in 2015. Her mission is nothing less than stopping the distribution of plastics that are causing so much harm in the sea.
"You can picture us as a full-fledged grocery store without any packaging," Miller said.
This means that fruits, vegetables, other food products, and even liquids—including vinegar, olive oil, molasses, shampoo, conditioner, and cleaning supplies—are sold either in reusable jars or to people who bring their own containers.
It's been operating as a pop-up shop, with the next coming to the Patagonia Vancouver store on West 4th Avenue on March 24. The pop-up will return during Earth Week and by this fall, Miller hopes to open a 2,000-square-foot grocery store.
In addition, Zero Waste Market operates a Facebook group with 2,500 users. It's trying to make it easy for consumers to buy groceries without the use of plastics.
"We're trying to encourage behaviour change," Miller said. "A lot of that boils down to education, which is a big aspect of what we do now and what we're planning in the future."
Futurpreneur shows the way forward
Coming from a scientific background, Miller wasn't familiar with the ins and outs of running a company before she started. Her first touch point with the business world was Futurpreneur Canada, a nonprofit organization that provides financing, education, and mentorship to young entrepreneurs.
She began by enrolling in Futurpreneur's "Rock My Business Plan" workshop, which is open to aspiring business owners between 18 and 39 years old getting ready to launch a new venture. ("Rock My Business Plan" sessions take place in Vancouver throughout the year, with the next intake beginning on March 22.)
Futurpreneur provided Zero Waste Market with its first loan of $15,000, which was leveraged with an additional $30,000 from the federal government's Business Development Bank of Canada.
"This is allowing us to operate until we can open our doors," Miller said.
For her, the biggest benefit from Futurpreneur has been the mentorship it offers. All financing comes with an experienced mentor, who is available as a sounding board for a few hours a month over a two-year period. Miller was matched with Kurstin Leith, who has extensive grocery-industry experience.
Futurpreneur has been fuelling the entrepreneurial passions of young Canadians since 1996. It's the only national nonprofit organization that provides financing, mentoring, and support tools to young aspiring business owners.
The organization'sB.C. & Yukon director, Paulina Cameron, described Futurpreneur as "industry-agnostic".
"We fund everything from tech to food to health and wellness," she said.
Futurpreneur offers a maximum loan of $15,000. Its partnerships with organizations such as BDC, Vancity, the Women's Enterprise Centre, and other lending institutions open up opportunities for entrepreneurs to multiply that amount severalfold.
Each year, about 150 entrepreneurs are funded in B.C. and more than an estimated 1,000 will be funded across Canada. Thousands more entrepreneurs are supported through its programs, events, and resources.
All of the funding is through loans. The organization does not take an equity stake.
"If you're considering starting a business, come and talk to us," Cameron said. "We'll ask you the right questions. We'll point you in the right direction. You're not in this alone."
She quickly added that Futurpreneur won't run the business—that's the responsibility of the entrepreneur. But this doesn't mean that he or she has to "trudge through the heavy waters" on their own when there are mentors and support organizations available to provide advice.
Junk business thrives
Another beneficiary of Futurpreneur's assistance is 505-Junk, a Vancouver waste-disposal company founded by Barry Hartman and Scott Foran in 2011. Hartman said that they brought their initial business plan to Futurpreneur, which provided the first $15,000 in financing.
"We started quite small," Hartman said. "We grabbed a pickup truck and we purchased a trailer and we drove to our first job site. We've been scaling our business every since."
The company has 16 full-time employees and this fall, it plans on signing up its first three franchisees. 505-Junk is forecasting $2 million in revenue in 2017.
Like Miller at Zero Waste Market, Hartman and Foran are also trying to make their industry more green. In their first year of business, they noticed that if they partnered with local recycling depots and local charities, they could divert a lot of household trash out of the waste stream.
Hartman estimates about 65 percent of the materials it removes are either resold in thrift stores or recycled. A developer hoping to obtain LEED certification has retained 505-Junk to haul away material, of which more than 90 percent is being recycled.
"Our approach to business is always the triple bottom line," Hartman said. "Yes, the business needs to generate a profit to be sustainable. At the same time, we like to have a big impact on the community and the environment that we're working in because it's the right thing to do."
Hartman is particularly appreciative of the advice provided by their mentor, Expedia CruiseShipCenters founder Mike Drever.
"He gave us a lot of guidance really early on in our business for not getting too far ahead of ourselves, and really making sure that we had a strong infrastructure in place," Hartman said. "Every year, we continue to work with him on certain areas of the business."
As 505-Junk prepares to enter the franchising world, Drever's input is going to be crucial because he has extensive experience in this area.
"We ended up deciding to go the franchising route because we wanted to be able to give the similar opportunity to people that we had created for us," Hartman said. "We have spent the last five or six years developing this concept to a point where it can create a really good business opportunity for the right person. At the same time, they can have a lot of impact on their community."
(This article is sponsored by Futurpreneur Canada.)