In our Q&A series, The Lightbulb, we ask innovators and entrepreneurs to tell us about how they turned their ideas into reality. This week we talk to Ming Dapiere, founder of packaging company R3pack (pronounced R-Three-Pack) which provides compostable and recycled courier options.
First of all, give us your elevator pitch for R3pack.
R3pack is a New Zealand-owned company that specialises in providing eco-friendly alternatives to the status quo of packaging.
What were you doing prior to R3pack?
Before that, I was actually working as an HR manager, but my background is in banking and finance. I’ve had a few side hustles before but they were never anything big. Last year, I had a small shoe business which is really what made me want to become self-employed.
How did the idea for R3pack come to you? What was your lightbulb moment?
This came from a pure shopping addiction – I have no other words to describe my love for shopping! But one day, it must’ve been after the weekend, there were just so many deliveries arriving from the courier. After I got into all my orders there was so much rubbish and I thought: ‘Gosh, there has to be a better way to manage all this’.
So I started looking into it and I really saw an opportunity in the market. No one was doing anything different. Everyone was still doing plastic bags and that was the only choice.
I wasn’t an ‘eco-warrior’ at the time or anything. I wasn’t on that extreme. But our motto is ‘a small change is a great change’ and if everyone made a small change, we’d be contributing to a big change in the environment. It’s about small changes, not bullying businesses by saying ‘you must use this’ or ‘you must go green’. It’s about providing a choice.
How much of an issue is courier waste?
There’s a report out by NZ Post that shows online shopping is growing every year as more and more people shop online and get their orders delivered. So if every one of those orders had a plastic bag and sometimes, several plastic bags, that’s a huge amount of waste. We know there are millions of courier bags being produced every year… and there’s so much that could be done to change that.
The other issue is bubble wrap. We went to the trade shops and we saw bubble wrap being sold and it was literally just a pallet of bubble wrap in the centre of their shop. Physically, it was an eyesore; it was massive. But also, that plastic bubble wrap will only be used once or twice before ending up in landfill. So that was one of the things we wanted to tackle as well which is why we have a paper alternative.
What range of eco-friendly products do you currently have?
We have three main options. The first are our compostable bags which are made of cornstarch and PBAT (a biodegradable thermoplastic). They’re certified to be composted commercially or at home, and they’re non-toxic, so if they’re composted at home, [that compost] can be used in the garden. They’re waterproof, they’re silky, and they do everything that plastic does.
Then we have our 100% recycled courier bags. These are designed for customers that have the option to recycle soft plastics. The idea behind this was that if they’re going to go to landfill, we don’t want to be producing something that would be adding to the plastic problem. These courier bags [usually] only have a single life, so why use virgin plastic? There’s so much plastic in the world that can be reused.
Then we have our paper courier bags because we wanted something that was simple for anyone to dispose of [since] they can be home composted or recycled in a council recycling bin which everyone’s got at home.
How long does your compostable packaging take to decompose?
Our bags are certified to be compostable [by the Australian Bioplastic Association]. These compostables are policed regularly because you don’t want a product that could potentially be toxic or won’t compost in time. So under these certifications, they need to decompose within 12 weeks in commercial composting facilities and within 180 days at home (commercial facilities monitor and manage their compost regularly, hence faster decomposition).
Who are your customers?
When we first started, we thought it was mainly going to be companies specialising in eco-friendly products. But we found that customers we would’ve never dreamt of having were looking into alternative [packaging] options. These companies might not necessarily be selling eco-friendly products, but they’re aware of what they need to do business-wise to contribute positively to the environment. They’re in all industries: apparel, lifestyle, furniture. Everyone is looking to change and it’s really great to see.
[One of our biggest customers] is Snappy, which is a division of Fletcher Building, and they’re head office uses our bags. Our oldest customer is Walker & Hall which has survived multiple business cycles and is now looking for change, which is really great.
What stage of business is R3pack at? Are you currently profitable?
We’re still in a growth stage at this point. With business, it’s a bit of a juggling act because although I want to be profitable instantly, it hasn’t always been that mindset for me. It’s never been about selling packaging to make money. It was always about trying to build a sustainable business that’s actually providing change.
What’s been your biggest challenge so far?
When you’re in a growth stage, you don’t know what you don’t know until it actually happens. And because you’re a startup business, it can be really chaotic. [In the past], I’ve worked with so many businesses with their financials when I did banking. But when it comes to your own business, suddenly everything matters… I think with every self-employed person when they start their company, it’s very precious and personal so i want to make sure the business is doing what I want it to do and fulfilling that satisfaction for customers.
Scaling is difficult too. We sign up two or three new corporates and it could mean we need a lot more capital injection, warehouse space, time commitments etc. So scaling for a growth business, especially when everyone is looking for different alternatives, becomes quite frustrating.
Finally, what can we expect for the rest of 2019?
Later this year, we’ve got commercial machines that will look at replacing the plastic air pillows used in boxes. They’re packaging air, but at the end of the day, they’re still a plastic bag. We’ll also have a larger version of our paper cushioning coming as well.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.