Plastic was meant to last forever. But most of it is only used once before being discarded, which results in microplastics ending up in the water we drink and the food we eat—in turn harming our wildlife and polluting our oceans.
It’s predicted that if we don’t act now, by 2050 there could very well be more plastic than fish in our oceans. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an organization that works to accelerate the transition to a circular economy, it isn’t enough to simply recycle or reduce the plastic pollution crisis into obscurity; rather, we must design and innovate our way out of it.
Sarah Paiji Yoo, cofounder and CEO of Blueland, is doing just that. She believes a cleaner planet starts at home, so she’s on a mission to eliminate single-use plastics from our households. Joining a call virtually from her home in New York City, Paiji Yoo speaks passionately about growing a business rooted in sustainability and proudly shares that to date, Blueland has diverted over a billion single-use bottles from landfills and oceans thanks to her company’s groundbreaking tablets.
A serial entrepreneur, Paiji Yoo credits motherhood with changing her relationship with her job. “I had a deep-seated desire to find more meaning in my work,” she says, “and I felt a strong urge to do work that would leave behind a better future for my son and future generations.” She became much more interested in sustainability and leading a sustainable lifestyle. “I actually became zero-waste—at least, my best attempt—but realized how hard that was, especially as a busy parent,” she adds. Knowing that cleaning products can contain upwards of 90 percent water and that most consumers will replenish their stock by purchasing an entirely new bottle, she became certain there was a better way. It was then that the idea for Blueland was born.
But creating something from nothing isn’t without its challenges, particularly when you’re blazing a trail. Together with her cofounder John Mascari, she came up with a way to rethink home cleaning products, pivoting traditional liquid-based formulas to a just-add-water dry tablet. The duo encountered countless naysayers who told them it couldn’t be done, noting that if it could, the big companies with million-dollar research-and-development budgets would have offered it by now. “Most consumer businesses these days starting out can go to a manufacturer and they can help you make your product,” says Paiji Yoo. “With our tablet idea, we talked to almost 40 different cleaning product manufacturers, and they all looked at me like I had a second or third head.”
Manufacturers weren’t equipped for the task; they didn’t have tablet machinery, and all of their raw materials were liquid. Not ready to take no for an answer, though, Paiji Yoo and Mascari persisted and eventually found a talented chemist named Syed Naqvi to join them. Next, it was development time: the formula needed to be eco-friendly; it also needed to have a kill system or preservative that could exist in dry form; and of course, it needed to be effective. Paiji Yoo and the team tackled the challenge for almost six months, vowing to not compromise on the original vision.
It took another year to nail the packaging, because they quickly realized that wrapping the tablet in paper wouldn’t protect it against high heat and humidity. It’s for this reason that we still see items like snack bars packaged in plastic: because it’s otherwise really hard to protect what’s inside. Paiji Yoo didn’t want to accept having done the painstaking work of developing the tablet only to have it packaged in plastic. The eventual resulting wrapper is a compostable paper-based material with an interior lining made of thin layers of aluminum to preserve the tablet; these layers are thin enough that they are compostable and biodegradable.
In her own home, (aside from cleaning with Blueland products, of course), Paiji Yoo instills mindful behaviors in her children by making it fun. “My oldest, who is four and a half, loves composting and avoiding food waste,” says Paiji Yoo. “We use reusable paper towels and napkins at home, and while that’s different than what he does at school, he understands why we do that.” She goes on to point out how engaged her son is in these practises, whereas we take many of these things for granted as adults. “It’s nice,” she says, “to raise him in this new way of life.”
Paiji Yoo aims to not only inspire consumers to live more mindfully, but also to spark action in other companies—perhaps with a larger reach than their own—that can affect even bigger change. She notes that a big a-ha moment for her early on was the consideration of behavioral change, and recognizing the need to remove all of the barriers for consumers: making the product easy to use, affordable, and equally effective while employing clean ingredients. Explorer Robert Swan famously said that “the greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.” It’s this mindset that is preventing us from moving the needle. We all have a role to play.