What It Takes to Manage a Reusable Packaging Business
In early 2023, the Kitchener, Ontario-based reusable jar and packaging company Circulr was one of 150 Canadian companies to receive a $20,000 GoodSpark grant from Desjardins. Through this grant program, which is now in its third year, the financial cooperative once again awarded $3 million in grants to inspire small businesses making a difference in sustainable development, innovation, employment and community impact. Here, we follow Circulr co-founder Tyler De Sousa, named one of Canada’s Top 25 Environmentalists under 25 by Starfish Canada in 2022, through a typical day on the job as he shows us how the Desjardins GoodSpark Grant helps his business scale and thrive.
De Sousa is an early riser, getting up around 6:30 a.m. to start his day. He heads to a nearby community kitchen—Wooden Boat Food Company—where Circulr rents space to wash the jars that fuel their business. He’s going to pack up jars that were cleaned the day before. “I’ll head to the facility by 7 a.m. to get an early jump on it,” De Sousa says.
Today, De Sousa has about 400 washed jars to pack up into reusable totes and cardboard boxes. “We help consumer goods brands and grocers reuse glass jars,” De Sousa explains. After customers purchase a product in a reusable Circulr jar, they return it to a partner collection site, like a grocery store, and their deposit is returned. Then, Circulr collects the jars, washes them and returns them to the companies to refill and use. “Our business model is based on the concept of the circular economy—with the aim of keeping materials in circulation for as long as possible to extend their useful life and reduce waste,” De Sousa explains.
De Sousa delivers those 400 cleaned jars to Beck’s Broth, a Kitchener-based organic bone broth company, and chats with owner Rebecca Prime about shared struggles to grow sales in a tight economy. Then, he heads to Aura-La Pastries + Provisions, a local bakery and collection site for Circulr jars, where he also purchases a jar of Manning Canning’s sundried tomato mustard for his home kitchen.
An early lunch is De Sousa’s first meal. He’s eating a turkey and cheese sandwich that he’s prepared using the mustard he bought from Aura-La. After a busy morning, he enjoys lunch outside on the terrace of his shared apartment building to recharge. According to a May 2023 survey from the Business Development Bank of Canada, the mental health of entrepreneurs has decreased significantly compared to last year, which makes it all the more important that De Sousa find time to unwind.
Circulr co-founder Charles Binks runs the company’s Toronto hub. He and De Sousa are in touch regularly, and meet in-person twice a month to talk business. Today, they’re having an eight-week strategy meeting. Their major goal is to land three big customers—companies that will package their products in Circulr jars.
After their strategy meeting, De Sousa does some desk work at his home office. He splits his time between operations and marketing tasks—creating social media posts, writing signage for collection points, explaining how the system works, and researching new business grants.
“Grant funding is crucial for our business,” De Sousa explains. “We don’t have the backing of bigger businesses and large bank accounts. When used effectively, grants help take a small business to their next step, making it more impactful.”
After receiving their $20,000 GoodSpark Grant from Desjardins, De Sousa and Brinks purchased more washing racks and storage equipment, reducing their repacking time. They also produced more marketing materials, such as stickers for their jars, to help with consumer awareness. In the Fall, they’ll hire a co-op student for sales and operations.
According to a Small Businesses Report published by Desjardins, small businesses employ two in every three working Canadians, making it even more important to support these operations.
De Sousa ends his day back out on the road to gain new customers. Today, he’s making a cold call to Caudles Catch—a seafood store in Kitchener. “We explain how our reusable packaging business works and identify a few products that would work well for it, then what our pricing is,” he explains. After an on-the-spot meeting with the store manager, De Sousa lands a deal to package their seafood salad and ceviche in Circulr’s glass jars. “Caudles is well known in the area and has a lot of social capital,” De Sousa explains. “Working with them shows the community our credibility.”
Winning new customers, like Caudles, gives De Sousa the boost he needs to stay confident about the future of Circulr. “It’s been a hard few years for small businesses,” De Sousa says. “I think we’ve survived the worst of it. Morale is high again because it seems like the fog is lifting.”