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Incubator nurtures companies that keep materials out of the landfill

Companies that have come out of the Project Zero incubator — and the Project Zero accelerator — include a consignment store for outdoor gear and a company that turns old sail cloth into bags

The phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle” has been floating around for decades, but despite successful blue box programs and the best of intentions, as much as 91 per cent of all goods produced still end up in landfills.

A small part of the solution to that problem has been quietly humming along in Victoria.

The Project Zero incubator — and the more recently minted Project Zero accelerator — were created to nurture companies that reduce waste by extending the life of materials and products, from a consignment store for outdoor gear to a company that turns old sail cloth into bags, backpacks, duffle bags and other totes, and a thrift store for donated art supplies.

The incubator, launched by the Synergy Foundation in 2019 with support from Van City Credit Union, takes in start-up companies and, by providing guidance, mentorship and workshops over an eight-month period, helps them solidify their business plans and launch into the marketplace.

The incubator, which caters to ventures operating within the circular economy, is currently accepting applications for its 2023 program until Feb. 13. The free program, which helps entrepreneurs develop and refine their business plans, will run between April and December.

According to Georgia Lavender, director of operations for the Synergy Foundation — a 10-year-old Victoria based non-profit focusing on green business and food security — there is incredible room for growth in the so-called circular economy, which some have pegged as a $4-trillion opportunity.

“There’s a lot of opportunity here,” she said. “We’re looking to create new businesses within the circular economy, to strengthen our local supply chains, localize our waste management, and also create green jobs while keeping that money in our community.”

Lavender said the incubator does not require applicants to have previous business experience, just a good idea and plenty of determination.

The young companies are coached in how to assess the market, pitch to investors, write business plans and the basics of how to run a company.

“By the time that they’re ready to launch, they have developed those business skills that are essential as a new entrepreneur,” she said.

The eight-month incubator program has produced 46 companies in the last three years, with two more cohorts planned for this year and 2024.

One of the biggest challenges is the fact circular-economy businesses are still a niche space, Lavender said — companies, whether pitching to investors or trying to find customers, need to realize they are working on shifting consumer behaviour away from buying mass-produced items.

Lavender believes that shift is underway already.

“It’s not always necessarily about having to educate their target market, but figuring out what the values of their target market are, and then how are they aligning their product with that,” she said.

In Victoria, that seems to be happening already — nine local firms graduated from the first incubator intake in 2019.

The scope has since expanded to take in companies from around the province.

In 2021, there were more than 40 applications to join the incubator, 17 firms graduated.

“We really see it as a growing space,” Lavender said. “The circular economy just makes financial sense. We’re taking resources that still have a lot of value and instead of losing all that value to landfills, we’re making something with it, or we’re considering how we repair and extend the life of products.”

For Sydney Munk, the owner of Grove Outdoors, an outdoor gear consignment store in Victoria, the intention was to be as sustainable as possible, while trying to lower the barrier for people to connect with nature.

“The whole idea is to create a space for making the outdoors more accessible by creating more affordable gear,” she said.

She’s done that by offering a place for people to buy and sell used outdoor gear, all the while diverting from the landfill gear that no longer fit or was no longer suitable.

Being a part of the circular economy was a central thrust of her business plan, but she’s found most customers are more interested in just being able to get out in nature.

“There’s lots of people that say: ‘This is great I’m using or I’m buying something used instead of new,’ but it’s not the primary focus,” she said.

But she still tries to ensure the business is as green as possible — all her fixtures and furniture are used or sourced from local, sustainable companies.

The standalone store at 614 Johnson St. has taken off since it opened in December — she had been sharing space with a kayak firm before that — underlining what Munk says is a huge demand for used outdoor gear and used items in general.

“I think the market for used stuff is just in the beginning of being popular — it’s growing as an industry,” she said.

She said that was clear when she went through the Project Zero incubator.

“There’s so many cool businesses that are a part of it that are doing just crazy things,” she said. “My idea is not original — it’s just copying someone else’s idea and putting it in Victoria, but other people have such innovative projects that they’re working on — reusing materials or generating energy in other ways. It’s really exciting.”

Salt Legacy is one of those.

Meaghan McDonald says she was hiking one day and noticed her backpack was falling apart. The sailing and scuba diving enthusiast wondered if sail cloth could be used to make a more durable backpack.

In 2019, she applied for the Project Zero incubator program to build her business plan. In the last year, her business, Salt Legacy, which turns old sail cloth into bags, backpacks, duffle bags and other totes, has taken off.

It quickly jumped from being run out of an apartment into a proper work space. As word got out, the inventory sold out.

A short item on national news about their products filled their inbox with orders and they’ve been playing catch-up every since. “We’re working from a waitlist right now,” McDonald said.

The company uses donated sail cloth, which seems to be in inexhaustible supply, and comes with a story — that story is included with each product, so the new owner knows where that sail has been and who it sailed with.

“The hope is that the new owner can post their own stories and photos of their adventures and then tag the collection and it becomes a part of the new legacy,” said McDonald. “The term Salt Legacy is about carrying on the history of that sail — it’s no longer fit for the sea anymore, but this material is extremely durable and can be utilized in another life and out of the landfill.”

To date the company has diverted an estimated 1,765 kilograms of sail cloth from landfills.

It has also launched a speaker series that will tell stories of people’s connection to the environment and an education component that will push conservation.

“We definitely want to divert as much as we can, but we also want to be a leader in the community when it comes to protecting local marine ecosystems,” McDonald said.

Ashley Howe is executive director of Supply Victoria, which operates like a thrift store for donated art supplies — everything from traditional art supplies to cast-off materials like rolls of fabric, vinyl, carpet samples and anything else an artist might be able to convert.

“We’re just breathing new life into them and trying to inspire people to see waste materials in a new light as well as highlight the creative and educational value in all waste materials,” said Howe. “We divert materials from the landfill and put them into the hands of people who need them. So we’re sort of feeding two birds with one seed.

“There’s tonnes of materials needlessly going into the landfill and then there’s lots of people that need access to material. We’re acting as a redistribution centre for those things.”

To date the centre, at 750 Fairfield Rd., has diverted about 1,800 kilograms of material from the landfill, while equipping local artists with inspiration gear.

“Victoria was a perfect place for this because it has the second highest concentration of artists in the country and it has a strong commitment to sustainability with its climate action plan, and then there’s lots of teachers and students that need access to materials,” she said.

Howe believes Victoria can be a model for other cities when it comes to adopting circular-economy principles.

“We’re a major contributor towards a global movement, which is really exciting,” she said.

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