Dr. Zac Hudson is the Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Chemistry at the University of British Columbia. He holds a B.Sc. and Ph.D. in chemistry from Queen’s University and has held research fellowships at top universities in Japan, China, the US and UK. His Ph.D. thesis was named the top chemistry Ph.D. in all of Canada, as well as the top Ph.D. at Queen’s in any field. He has published more than 50 peer-reviewed scientific papers, including six in Science or Nature journals, and holds 3 patents. He currently leads a team of 12 researchers at UBC developing new polymeric materials for sustainable technologies and is the Chief Scientific Officer at NEXE Innovations
What is the mission of NEXE Innovations? What problem does NEXE aim to solve in the world?
NEXE develops sustainable plant-based materials and products to replace single-use plastic. Our goal is to reduce plastic waste with more environmentally friendly alternatives that don't compromise on product quality.
Can you describe the global crisis we are seeing with plastics? Why is it important to create plant-based, biodegradable packaging?
More than 360 million tons of plastic are discarded every year, and only about 9% of that is recycled. Much of the remainder ends up in landfills, lakes, rivers, and oceans. About 30% of that is used for packaging. Creating plant-based compostable packaging is critical to stop the accumulation of plastic waste.
How did you develop the science and technology around your plant-based materials and how did you validate it?
Our materials are the result of 5 years of R&D, both academically and industrially. We validate that our materials break down completely with no ecotoxic effects with third-parties, including real municipal waste facilities.
Why did you choose to focus on single use compostable coffee pods?
The coffee consumer is both environmentally conscious, and very discerning. Terms like 'organic' and 'fair trade' have been huge market drivers in the coffee sector for years, and people are already very aware of the waste associated with disposable single-serve beverage pods. This was an ideal segment for us because coffee customers are both aware of, and concerned about, this problem.
How does NEXE’s plant-based biodegradable packaging differ from other biodegradable packaging? Can you share what unique aspects your materials have?
Our materials combine bio-based polymers with wood fiber to create a pod that looks and feels like a sustainable product, which helps the consumer understand immediately that this is something different. The pods are also heat-resistant and designed to provide a barrier to oxygen and moisture to keep the coffee fresh.
What is something many people would not know about the actual process of creating biodegradable plastics that is complex or challenging?
Traditional plastics are often made of only one raw material. Biodegradable plastics typically need to be formulated from multiple ingredients to engineer the right materials properties.
How long does it take for your materials to fully compost? What’s the science that allows that to happen and yet still be durable?
Our pods break down in as little as 35 days in a municipal composting facility. In that setting, the microorganisms in the compost are actually using the pod materials as food! This does not happen on your shelf in your kitchen however, where the pod will remain durable for a long time, since no soil is around.
Is NEXE planning to launch other products and materials? Can you share anything about how this technology could be used and leveraged in other areas?
Since we've launched, we've been asked by other companies if we can create compostable versions of all kinds of things - from yogurt cups, eyeglass frames, coffee creamers, etc. The answer to most of these is yes, and as the business scales we'll be looking to licence our intellectual property to help bring sustainable manufacturing to other industries.
What kind of advantages does NEXE have after years of research and scientific experimentation?
I think we understand how to work with and manufacture plant-based materials about as well as anyone out there. We also have robust collaborations with universities, municipalities and other levels of government to help us deliver.
How has NEXE been able to get funding from the Canadian government to support your mission?
All levels of government in Canada are deeply concerned with plastic waste and taking steps to replace it. We've received grant funding for R&D as well as commercialization from both the federal government and the government of BC, reflecting these priorities.
What makes you the most excited on a personal level when you think about the opportunity in front of NEXE?
Our goal is to create a 'category killer' in the single-serve beverage space - something that tastes just as good as coffee made with traditional plastic pods, but that is also cost-competitive and much better for the environment. I think we have, and I'm excited to work with larger brands as we build out our manufacturing capacity.
How much of an impact do you believe plant-based, compostable materials can make on the future of the global environment?
Compostable packaging will be essential to a shift away from non-biodegradable plastics. With government, industry, researchers, and municipalities working together, we can transform the impact that packaging is having on the world for the better.