Saturday 24 February 2018

VivaGreen: Our veggie-based bags are good for the earth

My Big Idea

Innovative brothers Garrett and Russell Walsh
Innovative brothers Garrett and Russell Walsh

Dad-of-three Russell Walsh (45), along with brother Garrett, developed an innovative new compostable material made from vegetable matter. His company VivaGreen sells a host of products made from the invention, including environmentally-friendly replacements for plastic bags.

"Garrett and I both have backgrounds in engineering and worked in the US at the start of our careers. When we came back to Ireland in the early 1990s we started a business providing purpose-built machinery. What we do today has evolved from there.

"We were inspired by golf - specifically divots, the chunks of earth torn from golf courses by players. They have to be constantly repaired by groundskeepers who have very few materials available to work with, since the courses are constantly being used. In response we developed a compostable stake. It is made from vegetable by-products at a manufacturing facility in Wicklow, using a patented process. It's as hard as a nail and can pin a divot into the ground, but completely disintegrates in four to six weeks. We called it the McDivot.

"It really caught on and we released another larger version for more general landscaping purposes, called the Green Stake. That took off in the US. Over the last ten years we have been building up distribution networks for the product around the world. It's a massive market; there are one billion metal pins sold in the US every year.

"When we started 15 years ago, green wasn't the buzz word it is today. But then recycling bins were introduced and there was a real opportunity to expand. We developed a flexible version of our material, and used it to make bags for wheelie bins. We did most of our research in Waterford and Galway, which were the first counties to get recycling bins. The idea did really well, so we expanded with different bag sizes.

"They're on sale all around the country, including Tesco, Dunnes, SuperValu and Spar, but most of our revenue comes from overseas. Ireland is just too small a market. Enterprise Ireland has invested in our company and was really helpful on the exporting side of things. Our revenues now are in excess of €1m a year.

"We recently launched a smaller bag, aimed specifically at dog walkers picking up dog litter. If our bags end up in a bush - not that they should - they wont do any harm to the environment.

"The biggest challenge has been building awareness of how our product is different from our competitors. You can only call something compostable if it complies with strict EU standards, but there are far less stringent rules around calling something biodegradable. But consumers confuse the two. Lots of bags sold as biodegradable are plastic."

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