The Rubbish Whisperer founder Helen Rupp's time in Nepal opened her eyes to the problem of plastic and she started her Christchurch business to combat how much plastic ends up in the ocean.
What does your business do?
My business is called The Rubbish Whisperer and our aim is to make it easy for people and businesses to replace single use disposable plastic bags with a product that is reusable or compostable. We started back in 2013, it was just a small part-time gig then, and it has really taken off in the last year and a half with the increase in people's awareness in the problems of plastic bags and plastic straws.
What sparked the idea?
My husband Mark and I were living in Nepal and Bangladesh for a year, seven years ago, and while we were there we were confronted by the amount of rubbish that ends up in the rivers and on the streets.
They don't have a centralised rubbish collection, so as their shops get more convenience products there's no way of disposing of the plastic wrapping.
The level of rubbish they produce compared to what we produce here in New Zealand is vastly different - we produce so much more, and every two weeks it is taken away and we don't have to see it - we don't have to confront how much we produce. That led me to think that there must be alternatives to common items that we use plastic for. It took a long time researching alternatives and I thought: 'You can't expect everyone to spend all this time looking for alternatives, it would be good if there was an easier way to find compostable or reusable products', and that's how we started.
How has your background helping in running the business?
I worked quite a few years with the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh on a digitising project. When we went to Nepal the project was also moving to the Botanic Gardens in Kathmandu so I set up the digitising process [there] and that was really good training for running a business because there was just me, and loads of problems. There was no electricity when we started - we had to get solar panels - and no internet so setting up all the IT, if I came across a problem I'd have to go home, wait for the power to come on, look something up online and then go back the next day and try it out. And then there was the training of staff - all good practise for running a business.
Where are you based and how many people do you employ?
We're based in the Christchurch area and have 13 part-time employees. Quite a lot of those are selling staff as we make the reusable bags in New Zealand, and we also have people writing the blog and doing graphics.
Tell me about your products, and how much do they cost?
The reusable produce bags and paper straws are our main two products but we also sell a few products from other New Zealand companies. A pack of five produce bags costs $22.50 and the straws come in a pack of 18 which is $8. The price of the straws is really reasonable when you take into account the environmental cost of plastic, which is never taken into account.
Is your business an intentional social business?
We've fundraised over $3,000 in the last few months for New Zealand schools and we also support local conservation as well, so buying New Zealand made products instead of ones made in China is a good deal, I think. Our main motivation was to reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean but we've always thought we don't see why we can't do that while running a business and while helping schools and community groups at the same time.
What do you think of supermarkets decision to ditch plastic bags by end of 2018?
I think it's great that both Countdown and New World have decided to lead the way by ditching plastic bags. I'm looking forward to other retailers following suit.
Our long term goal is to get rid of all of the plastic straws in New Zealand in 10 years which is a nice ambitious goal but when you think about the plastic straw and that it's around for 400 years after you have used it for 20 minutes; it's not really a viable option when there's great alternatives.
What advice do you give to others thinking of starting their own business?
Do something you really like, that you really want to do, because it takes a while to grow your business and so it's important to do something you feel strongly about.