Eli Browne, Sobeys’ director of corporate sustainability
It was a scene reminiscent of reality TV. A mashup of the Academy Awards (if the nominees had no chance to see the others’ performances) and Dragons' Den (if the entrepreneurs all had the same end goal). Out of view of their competitors, the finalists pitched their products to judges, waited hours for the results and then sat nervously in an auditorium hoping their names would be called (in this case, last).
You could cut the tension with a knife.
Winning would be an honour as well as a potential financial windfall. And, most importantly for the Canadian environment, the victor would help usher in a new generation of sustainable food packaging.
The victor in this case, for Sobeys' Plastic Waste Challenge, was Newmarket, Ont.'s Eco Guardian.
It began this past March when, in partnership with Ignite Atlantic, Divert NS, and Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), Sobeys announced its Plastic Waste Challenge. The goal was to find “a viable and sustainable commercial solution for in-store wrapped meat and seafood packaging.”
In 2019, Sobeys — Canada’s second-largest retailer by market share — planted a sustainability flag in the ground when it became the country’s first national grocery retailer to announce it was eliminating single-use plastic bags at its stores. To date, that has kept more than 800-million plastic bags from entering circulation.
“When we first made that announcement in 2019, we always viewed it as a first step in a journey towards plastic waste reduction,” Eli Browne, Sobeys’ director of corporate sustainability, told Canadian Grocer. “We always intended to look for more opportunities…[and] we really started to target non-recyclable meat and seafood packaging.”
The challenge began with a call-out for submissions. Applicants described their experience in the space, concepts and design, estimated production costs, noted where they were in the development process and the steps needed to fully realize a prototype. Commercial viability was key, but Sobeys was also looking for an innovative product that would be diverted from landfills and meet its criteria around food safety and durability.
“We were blown away by the response,” says Browne, smiling over video. “We received nearly 20 submissions from companies coast-to-coast. Literally, from Nova Scotia all the way to B.C. Big suppliers, but also from some smaller, emerging startups. The variety in the submissions that we got was really encouraging.”
From there, a panel of Sobeys, Ignite Atlantic, Divert NS and ACOA execs whittled the applicants down to six finalists and invited them to Halifax to pitch their products in person.