Visionary Transformation to a Plastic-Free World: Interview with Benjamin Stern
The widespread use of plastic in grocery and personal care packaging has become a significant environmental issue, with mountains of plastic polluting our landfills, oceans, and waterways. This massive amount of plastic harms the environment, kills marine life, and is a major contributor to environmental degradation. In addition, the production of plastic increases carbon emissions and has a detrimental impact on human health; for example, traces of microplastics have been found in human blood.
Commonly used plastic was synthesized in 1907, was easy to use, versatile, and durable, and was a breakthrough invention. Unfortunately, over the years, environmental degradation effects have been felt. Traditional plastic takes up to 1,000 years to degrade; this long degradation period means there is a massive accumulation of plastic waste in the environment.
Another persistent issue is that not all plastic is/or can be recycled. According to the World Economic Forum, only 14% of produced plastic is collected for recycling. To address the massive plastic packaging problem, efforts are underway to provide alternative sustainable solutions like adopting biodegradable and compostable packaging. A pioneering sustainable solution has been developed by Nohbo, a one-stop-shop solution to curate single-drop pod technologies that can revolutionize the plastic and CPG industries.
In this exclusive interview, Grocery Doppio and Nohbo founder and CEO Benjamin Stern discuss the company’s vision and purpose and its impact on single use plastic. Nohbo is a certified B corporation. The technology company specializes in single-drop pod solutions, which help eliminate plastic waste from personal care products.
The company’s proprietary technology allows for personal care products to be encapsulated into single drops that dissolve in water providing a better user experience while reducing plastic waste. Stern believes his company’s solutions can revolutionize plastic management for companies while also changing consumer behavior in the long term.
Below, Stern shares his company’s journey of innovating quality and affordable solutions to optimize the user experience while helping eliminate single-use plastic.
Grocery Doppio: Tell us about yourself and what inspired you to start the company.
Stern: I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, Seattle, and have been accustomed to the words, Reuse, Reduce, and Recycle; however, that did not quite sit well with me. I often wondered if there was a way for the most efficacious products we can see, touch, and interact with could simply disappear. I was shown a documentary in biology class that spoke about the plastic bottling industry and how it was damaging the oceans and marine life. It left an impression on me and sparked my curiosity to look around my internal environment for the menace of plastic. When I went home that day, I saw my mother using a laundry detergent pod, which created an epiphany: could we do something about the plastic shampoo bottles in our bathrooms, encapsulating shampoos in a pod where they could disappear after use? The idea stuck and fostered into a legitimate company.
Grocery Doppio: Nohbo is an exciting name. Can you tell us about it?
Stern: Yes! I started the company when I was 14, I went through several names and finally settled on “Nohbo.” It sounded startup-y to me. Nohbo is an acronym for No Hair Bottles.
Grocery Doppio: Given the volume of plastic waste in the world, how big is this problem, and who are the major contributors?
Stern: It's a massive problem and does not stem only from plastic. The personal care industry is not a clean industry; it produces 120 billion bottles, and about 3% of product used is comprised of EWG hazardous chemicals, poisioning aqautic life, and producing roughly 355 million gallons of hazardous waste. Ninety percent of the volume of personal care bottles shipped worldwide is primarily water, contributing to enormous CO2 emissions.
Grocery Doppio: How would you define the problem of sustainability vs. profitability, especially in the context of inflation and rising prices?
Stern: The winds of sustainability are blowing in our direction, where it is proven that consumers are willing to adopt products that do less harm, even at a higher price tag. However, consumers should not need to make that sacrifice, and competition will certainly drive down price. As an entrepreneur, the onus is on innovators to create adoptable, easy to use, affordable solutions that are both sustainable and profitable. There are a lot of technologies innovating in the market, but most usually fail if they don't meet the criteria for flawless user experience and are unrealistically priced. The end user has a little wiggle room on price sensitivity, however they will refuse to sacrifice quality before adopting a more sustainable solution.
Grocery Doppio: Please elaborate on your company’s technology. How does the chemical base disintegrate?
Stern: The chemical base produced is more biodegradable than a banana; when it meets water, the base converts into CO2 and water within 28 days. The base resembles a 1,3 diol structure (a carbohydrate), therefore bacteria attack and biodegrade the solution, as it is a primary source of energy for them.
Grocery Doppio: How do you measure Nohbo’s impact on sustainable packaging solutions? Do you have a metric that you follow?
Stern: Yes, we measure the internal impact reporting as required for a company that is a certified B corp; we also measure plastic water and preservatives consumption that are saved. We are also working on 3 LCA to determine the quantitative impact of drops. To share an eye-opening stat: if Americans consumed pods instead of single-use plastic bottles for a single day, we save up about 142 blue whales worth of plastic packaging, 20 Olympic swimming pools of water, and 7,200 sumo wrestlers' worth of preservatives.
Grocery Doppio: How can Nohbo encourage consumers to move towards sustainable packaging, especially since we are accustomed to single-use plastic users?
Stern: A report by Mintel suggests that 70% of consumers are willing to pay for sustainable solutions, but the real problem is that consumers don't have an option. At Nohbo, we are not looking to create a brand for Nohbo shampoos, but we would like to promote our technologies with existing FMCG and personal care brands to create 1-1 podded formats for their products. For example, a consumer can purchase a Tide detergent bottle however, since laundry pods are now an option, they could choose to go for a Tide Laundry Pod instead. We envision our products being launched under multiple brands and consumers adopting podded products across categories.
Grocery Doppio: You mentioned that your single drop podded technology could touch across all industries. Since you worked at Wegmans earlier, could you foray into the grocery industry?
Stern: I worked as a cashier at Wegmans when I was 16, but it left an imprint on my mind, especially given the shear volume of single-use plastic I interacted with. As of now, we are hyperfocused on personal care. Long-term we see a lot opportunity in the food space. For example, our technology unlocks so much opportunity to do away with most single-use plastic products. This could certainly disrupt the grocery industry.
Grocery Doppio: How can your company help a large grocer like Kroger? At which levels in the supply chain can you help them?
Stern: Our approach to helping Kroger would be to launch plastic-free format in their cosmetics and personal care products. Our podded technology could be utilized in their private-label personal care line. Long-term, it could translate into packaging for condiments, supplements, maybe plastic packaging, etc.
Grocery Doppio: Can you share a success story?
Stern: I am excited to tell you about our pilot project with Disney. They have used a personal care brand called H20+ for the last 15 years. With the recent implementation of banning single-use amenities in California, they are looking for a suitable replacement to replenish their 35,000 hotel rooms worldwide. They see Drops as an excellent alternative and are happy with our products.
Grocery Doppio: How would you define Nohbo’s success today, and where do you see the company in the next 5 years?
Nohbo: Procter and Gamble launched laundry pods in 2012 and by 2015, occupied 15% of the market for all laundry detergent applications. Pod technology is sticky and here to stay. Today, we have a 12,000-square-foot factory making up to 195 million drops yearly in our plant and a certified B corporation. My goal is to follow the path and disrupt the space starting in personal care, and eventually touching all industries that consume single-use plastic, when there is really no need for it in the first place.
Grocery Doppio: Can you tell us about any lowest moments and how you got past them?
Stern: Yes, there have been many challenging and low moments. I have taken personal loans to keep the company afloat, and not being in a financial condition to pay for the teammates has been excruciatingly painful. In those days, I delivered for Uber Eats just to keep the lights on. I don't regret any of it since those times have made me stronger, but it was certainly painful then.
Grocery Doppio: Can you tell us an impactful piece of advice you followed during your challenging days that sailed you through?
Stern: I believe that the only way to truly fail is by giving up. Being perseverant through easy times and hard is absolutely critical.
Grocery Doppio: Do you have any new products you have launched and would like to tell us about?
Stern: Yes, we have recently launched our new technology building on our drop technology called “Hydrofills.” It is a water-soluble pod where users add 8 ounces of tap water to a single product. After a quick 30 second shake, a full container of viscous shampoo, creamy conditioner, or gel like body wash forms. Effectively, users buy a bottle one time only! It’s an extremely affordable way of being hyper sustainable.
Grocery Doppio: Considering the fierce competition in the industry, what is your company’s competitive advantage? What makes it stand out from others?
Stern: We welcome competition, as we’re doing this to drive impact in the industry. There are no direct competitors, however, we see varying solutions that provide consumers a similar consumer benefit (i.e. concentrated formulas). Our company has built out a powerful IP portfolio, and our competitive advantage lies with us being a one-stop solution for any business. Our vertical integration with an in-house R&D team and manufacturing provides for finished products turnkey. We work with established industry leaders in the personal care space and provide professional and hygienic podded formats that optimize the user experience for the end user.
Grocery Doppio: We have been asking you predominantly questions about your company, and we would like to learn a little about you. Do you listen to music?
Stern: Yes, of course.
Grocery Doppio: We would like you to tell us three songs you recall when I lay down the three contexts for you. Are you ready?
Stern: Sure, sounds interesting.
Grocery Doppio: Tell us a song you listened to on your journey from the idea of Nohbo to its state today.
Stern: Sure, that would be, I probably Can't Stop - Red Hot Chilli Peppers
Grocery Doppio: During the process of establishing the company, there may have been many challenging moments. Can you tell us about a song that got you through those moments?
Stern: “Up Up & Away”
Grocery Doppio: And a song you listen to now?
Stern: “Hey” by The Pixies
This interview is part of Grocery Doppio’s ongoing coverage of sustainable packaging solutions. Click here for more insight into food waste management and sustainability efforts across the grocery industry. If you would like to be featured in an upcoming executive insight please reach out to Neha Ghai at firstname.lastname@example.org.