In the battle against plastic pollution, Henry Pino has devised a weapon. He calls it the Ecopod, or as he likes to describe it: A vending machine with an environmental conscience.
The Ecopod dispenses biodegradable cleaning products — laundry detergent, fabric softener, all-purpose cleaner, dishwashing gel and dish soap — into refillable containers.
Pino is hoping the refills, which he says cost about 50% less than what consumers pay for a new bottle of cleaner or detergent, will help cut down on single-use plastic bottles, which are polluting oceans and piling up in landfills.
In the United States alone, 9.5 billion pounds of plastic bottles were discarded in 2017, and only 30% of those bottles were recycled, according to The Association of Plastic Recyclers and the American Chemistry Council. While the vast majority are beverage bottles, there was still 1.8 billion pounds of plastic containers for products like detergent, cleaning products and shampoos.
Creating a ‘circular economy’
EcoPod is built upon the circular economy model, which aims to reduce waste by prolonging the use of items like plastic containers by finding ways to refill or reuse them.
“I’ve always been in love with the beautiful marine environment that surrounds my home city of Miami,” said Pino, 55. “With the circular economy [model], our goal is to help facilitate a more sustainable retail model that protects the health of our planet.”
Susan Collins, president of California-based nonprofit Container Recycling Institute, thinks Ecopod has potential. “I already refill my shampoo bottle at my local convenience store,” she said.
The idea has been gaining momentum among big consumer products makers as well.
At the World Economic Forum in January, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Nestlé, PepsiCo and other big global brands announced that they are teaming up on an effort called Loop, which will offer about 300 common household items — from Tide detergent to Häagen-Dazs ice cream — in reusable packaging, with refills delivered direct to consumers’ doorsteps.
A chance to do things differently
More than two decades ago, Pino owned another detergent company called Environmental Control Group. That business, which he launched in 1993, produced commercial strength detergent and supplied it to hotels, hospitals, dormitories, restaurants and area jails.
“We had a fleet of trucks, similar to a fuel truck and we would pump and refill the detergent into our clients’ laundry machines,” he said.
The Miami-based business grew quickly, adding more than 1,000 clients. In 2001, Pino decided to sell the company for about $800,000 and go into real estate instead.
But when the recession hit, his real estate business suffered.
“I couldn’t get loans. So I thought about what else I could do,” he said. “I knew how to make detergent.”
But with this business, Pino decided to focus on the environment.
“This time, I was more aware of the impact of plastic pollution and the environmental consequences of synthetic ingredients,” said Pino. “I wanted to do my part to shift the industry to refill using eco-friendly ingredients.”
In 2010, Pino launched Environmental Solutions Group to create the Ecopod and the biodegradable detergent and cleaning products that would be sold through the machine. He backed the venture with $1.2 million of his own money and hired engineers to design a scaled down detergent production system similar to the one he used at his old business.
“I condensed it into a small machine built to service the domestic market,” he said.
It took him about two years to create a prototype. He filed for a patent in 2015 and was granted one a year later. Production began in September 2017.
Not just about generating income
Pino started installing the machines, which cost about $4,000 each to make, about 10 months ago.
So far, Ecopods are available in five Miami apartment buildings that Pino has had a hand in developing, and at the Dadeland North Shopping Center. In January, the company opened its first retail location, where people can buy an Ecopod starter kit for $20 and get refills.
Currently, the company loans the vending machines out to its clients for free. The businesses then receive a percentage of the profits from the refills.
Tenants in apartment buildings where the Ecopod is installed get a free starter kit that includes a one-gallon container of laundry detergent and three 32-ounce containers of dishwashing liquid, degreaser and all-purpose cleaner. Refills cost $5 for 64-ounces, or $3 for 32-ounces.
Maurice Bared, CEO and owner of a chain of Miami-based convenience stores called Farm Stores, agreed to install 10 Ecopod vending machines in his stores later this month.
“Each of our stores are tiny drive-thru concepts of about 645 square feet,” said Bared. “Detergent bottles take up a lot of shelf space. With Ecopod, we eliminate that issue because we can place the machine either outside or at our entrance.”
He thinks budget-conscious shoppers will gravitate toward Ecopod’s lower prices. If customers like it, Bared is open to adding more machines as Farm Stores looks to expand to locations in the Northeast.
Pino said he’s also in talks to partner with a large Fortune 500 consumer products company. He declined to disclose the name, however, citing a confidentiality agreement.
“For me, this isn’t about generating an income,” said Pino. “I want to grow Ecopod faster because of my love for marine life and my concern for the environment that we were leaving for our children.”