Teen entrepreneur tackling plastic waste

Wellington student Elisa Harley is making strides in conservation with her innovative biodegradable plant pots, thanks to the support of researchers and commercialisation experts at Scion.

Elisa, the 17-year-old founder of Enivo Pots, is working to develop pots made from underutilised primary industry waste, aiming to replace the 350 million plastic plant pots used annually in New Zealand.

This week she has shared her story on the opening day of E Tipu Agri Summit, a two-day food and fibre sector summit in Manawatū.

Elisa’s journey began at the age of 13 when she became aware of the environmental issues surrounding plastic waste in gardening. Her commitment to finding a solution led her to start Enivo Pots, a company dedicated to producing biodegradable plant pots that can be planted directly into the ground. However, turning this vision into reality required more than just determination; it needed technical support and resources, which she found at Scion.

Marc Gaugler, Emma Gobes, Kelly Wade, Elisa Harley and Doug Hillyer in the Scion nursery.

Scion’s involvement with Elisa started with Zoom calls with science leaders followed by a half-day visit to Scion in July 2023.

In January this year, Elisa visited Scion for three days to begin the first run of prototyping. She trialled different formulations for her pots and tested their performance after hand-moulding printed sheets  around glass beakers.

Elisa returned to Scion in April – this time using our Benchtop Fibre Former to form the pot shape using a preferred formulation. She worked with a number of researchers including Kelly Wade, Sean Taylor, Karl Molving and PhD student Emma Gobes to produce 115 pots. These will now undergo nursery trials to evaluate their performance in real-life conditions. These trials are essential for understanding how the pots function and for planning the next steps in scaling up production.

Elisa’s progress has been impressive, and she is currently exploring options for up sizing the pots and increasing production. This involves considering investment requirements and potential sites both within New Zealand and internationally. Throughout this process, Elisa has found herself in meetings with commercial lawyers, patent experts, scientists, and commercialisation specialists, gaining valuable insights into the complexities of bringing an innovative product to market.

Commercialisation associate Doug Hillyer is supporting Elisa as she builds a business case for investment.

“We’ve been really encouraging Elisa to think about what success would look like for her, how big she’d like to scale things, and support her to wrap some numbers around it.

“With any commercialisation project, there’s a lot to consider when you’re wanting to take an innovative product to market. But Elisa is diligently working through all the steps and taking everything on board. It’s been a pleasure working with her,” he says.

Karl Molving, Emma Gobes and Elisa Harley used the Benchtop Fibre Former to produce prototypes in April.

Creating a sustainable future

Elisa’s hard work has already been recognised. Last year she participated in the Lion Foundation Young Enterprise Scheme. An earlier prototype of Enivo Pots won The Todd Foundation Award for third place, the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment Award, and the Ministry for Primary Industries Award. This led to Elisa being honoured as the 2023 Youth Wellingtonian of the Year.

She continues to present her innovative pots at various platforms. In July she will be speaking in Rotorua at the Residues2Revenues conference, an event that highlights emerging opportunities in the forestry sector to transform wood residues into high-value renewable products.

Reflecting on her journey, Elisa emphasises the invaluable support from Scion. “What people are doing is so impactful, and I am so appreciative of how, by supporting me with their time and expertise, they are investing in my future. The connections I’m making are so valuable.”

Scion portfolio leader for Distributed and Circular Manufacturing Marc Gaugler says Elisa’s journey is a testament to the power of collaboration.

“It’s exciting to see young innovators want to make things happen. She’s identified a real-world waste problem and considered why solutions may have not worked in the past.

“She hasn’t been afraid to investigate something again and use a slightly different approach to make it successful. By taking regional feedstocks and creating a specialised product, she’s paving the way for a more sustainable future for New Zealand.”