A new startup launched by the founder of New Zealand's largest regenerative beauty product export business is set to cut the global use of single-use plastic drink bottles by tens of millions annually.
Brianne West stepped down as Ethique CEO earlier this year, a decade after starting the $100 million business in her kitchen as a 24-year-old biochemistry student.
West's new social enterprise aims to take on the $1.44tn beverage market, which produces over 583 billion single-use plastic bottles annually, with less than 10 percent recycled.
The new venture will produce concentrated effervescent drink mixers in the shape of a circular tablet, which dissolves to release flavouring in contact with liquids such as water. Each 'Incrediball' makes up the equivalent of a 350ml beverage and can be added to both alcoholic and non-alcoholic hot or cold beverages to enhance the taste.
West said the product would be the world's first effervescent drink tab in fully home compostable packaging and could prevent over 10 million single-use bottles from entering the waste stream every year from 2030 and expects this to grow significantly over time.
While effervescent concentrates in this form usually require plastic wrapping, the new venture will launch new technology within the tablet to protect the product from moisture before use.
"The beverage industry is a well-known contributor to the growing volumes of plastic waste entering our marine ecosystems and urban landscapes, with a number of the most significant players within the sector named as the most prolific plastic polluters in the world by environmental groups," said West.
"When water is on tap in your kitchen, it seems crazy to ship it worldwide."
"Incrediballs is designed to address this - we are looking to transform the traditional model under which drinks are sold in their ready-made form by allowing consumers to purchase the flavouring component in a concentrated format that can be added to sparking, still, hot or cold tap water in a reusable container, as well as a wide range of other beverages.
"We aim to offer consumers a delicious drink without the impact on the planet."
West continued that mainstream product adoption would be essential to making a meaningful environmental impact and communicating 'green' benefits will not be enough to elicit widespread change.
The idea for the business was developed from the recognition that shipping around the world was inherently inefficient and contributed to a growing plastic pollution problem.
"With billions of plastic bottles manufactured yearly, we know that our offering will need universal appeal to all market segments to change an entrenched set of consumption behaviours."
To achieve this objective, the primary focus will be creating a product with a fantastic taste profile that organically attracts consumers.
"We want to make sure the format is also convenient, allowing people to drop a couple of flavour tabs in their bag as an alternative to carrying an entire bottle of liquid to work."
West recognises that waste reduction benefits will be secondary to many parts of the mainstream market, and the product needs to fulfil other consumer needs to have downstream environmental outcomes at a global level.
West said she wants to develop functional and non-functional concentrates, including Manuka, kawakawa and kiwifruit extracts.
"In the first stage, we will introduce a range of flavours that will resonate with most consumers."
The second stage will see a new line of functional concentrates with various health benefits.
"This might include using native New Zealand Manuka for its antibacterial benefits and essential vitamins, minerals and electrolytes for post-workout recovery."
The product's export potential is significant, and she expects it to become a $30m business within the next five years.
Industry feedback from the market has been positive, and she has already been approached by local supermarket representatives interested in stocking the product when it launches in April next year.
"Our international distribution channels will be online as we soft launch the product and get a read on how consumers respond to the flavours.
"From there, we expect to expand quite quickly into FMCG channels in North America, Australia and New Zealand."
By removing a beverage's liquid and packaging components, the weight and volume are reduced by over 99 percent - which helps reduce the carbon footprint of exporting.
"Water can comprise 90 percent of the product's weight in ready-made flavoured drinks. On top of this, plastic packaging represents up to 10 percent."
This means that beverage exporters end up paying to ship their lowest-cost ingredients in single-use plastic packaging that is increasingly out of alignment with the evolving needs of environmentally conscious consumers.
In contrast, the Incrediballs reduce the volume of a shipping container, which holds around 68m3 down to just 1m3.
"In other words, we can ship 100 times as many ready-made drinks in the same size container."
Despite the reduced size, the export value of this shipment in dollar terms is roughly the same.
The new business will be based in Christchurch, and the current team of four staff will expand to over 12 within the first few years of operation.
West said that effervescent products are not currently manufactured locally, but she is exploring whether that will be possible.