While reverse vending machines have been around for quite a while, it is only recently that they have started to become ‘smart’. Philip Stanger, co-founder and CEO of Olyns, a young start-up that has developed a reverse vending machine called the Cube that is more than just a machine. Olyns’ Cube is a platform, complete with an app designed to incentivise people to recycle. “The idea grew from the problem itself,” Stanger told Sustainable Plastics.
So, first of all, when was Olyns founded exactly?
Philip Stanger: Olyns was founded in late 2019.
The company has developed a reverse vending machine that makes use of AI: in what way does it use AI?
We use AI in different ways. Machine learning allows us to identify the type, brand and product of the deposited container without the need for barcodes. This gives us enormous flexibility to collect many types of non-beverage containers. For instance, we currently have pilot with Mars Wrigley to collect rigid plastic candy containers made of PP or HDPE. Actually, we can use our technology to identify anything that fits into the deposit opening and can be recycled such as shampoo, soap or dishwashing liquid containers, hot cups, thermoform clamshells, etc.
We also use AI predictive analysis to determine when a Cube (our name for our reverse vending machines) will need to be emptied.
Finally, AI analysis allows us to create a dynamic pricing model to pay our network of crowdsourced workers when they empty and deliver the recycled material to appropriate recycling endpoints.
How did you come up with the idea of combining the functions of a reverse vending machine with a retail media outlet? What are the advantages?
The idea grew from the problem itself. When we started to analyse the problem of plastic waste, we were struck by the fact that the demand for recyclable plastic feedstock was dramatically outpacing its supply. This was particularly acute with food grade rPET which relies on feedstock primarily from the few jurisdictions with container deposit refund schemes (DRS). Without both funding mechanisms to incentivise consumers to sort containers and convenient opportunities for them to return their containers, bales of PET from non-DRS single stream recycling contain so much contaminant as to render them uneconomical to be processed into food grade material.
Therefore, the problem of plastic waste stemmed from a broken business model. We believed that a solution could be had with an alternative business model that could support the expensive process of collection and sortation, as well as consumer and retailer incentives.
By leveraging what the Boston Consulting Group recently called the $100B opportunity in retail media, we could provide value for all stakeholders: Consumers would get the convenience, incentives and paths to recycle; Brands would get a media channel to align their sustainability message with the action of recycling at a valuable point of sale; Retailers would get increased customer visits and incremental revenue as well as alleviating the headaches and expense of their own recycling operations; And our planet would get a break from the tons of plastic that would otherwise pollute our environment.
As you noted, demand for recyclable plastic feedstock was, and is, outpacing supply. What can businesses do to meet the increasing demand for high grade rPET to achieve their plastic packaging pledges/EPR requirements?
To ensure that all demand for rPET is met, businesses need to focus on assisting with an increase of the supply rPET. Supply is significantly hampered at the beginning of the process with a broken financial model at the collections and sortation stage. Adequate feedstock for rPET cannot be achieved without increasing incentives and opportunities for consumers to return their used containers, and the proper funding support for recycling businesses. This is an area where Olyns provides a mechanism to provide funding for the system while providing a market solution and benefit for participating businesses.
Does the machine take all recyclables, with and without a deposit? How does that work?
Yes, Olyns Cubes can accept any container that can fit in the deposit opening and that the AI is trained to identify. We train the AI through a simple process of feeding the system images of the desired container. Once this is done, the Cube can identify, sort and crush (or not) any container. Each Cube can store and hold up to 2200 containers in 3 different types of bin. For example, in California, each Cube sorts and holds PET, aluminium cans and glass while crushing only the PET and cans.
It is not always that simple for retailers to provide recycling options to their customers. How does Olyns that provide the services needed to its network of partners using its machines?
Yes, retailers often have significant cost, storage and labour challenges in providing recycling to their customers. In DRS or “Bottle Bill” jurisdictions, retailers are often legally obliged to take back beverage containers from customers and return their deposits. This is often a very unpopular obligation for many retailers as it not only distracts them from their core business of selling profitable consumer products, but there all also administration costs associated with managing the program and accounting for the deposit returns. In addition, there are the significant storage requirements to house the returned containers prior to dispatch to a processor, arranging transportation to a processor, and attracting "professional recyclers” who can overwhelm the retailer and detract from their regular customers.
However, Olyns can relieve retailers of these challenges with our turnkey solution: the Olyns Cube provides them with a service that accepts and sorts containers; The Olyns app returns a reward or the consumer deposit (in DRS states) electronically to the user; and our crowdsourced gig workers empty and service the Cubes on demand when they are full. As such, the retailers’ only requirement is to provide space and 110V power for the Cube. Olyns takes care of the rest.
What happens to the containers that are collected? Does Olyns have contacts/contracts with recyclers that do bottle-to-bottle recycling? Have you become part of a new value chain?
We are proud of the fact that all the containers deposited in Olyns Cubes are delivered to appropriate recycling processors to be recycled into new products. Because containers are sorted at the point of collection, Olyns material is uncontaminated and result in the highest quality recycled material. Olyns contracts directly with large CPGs to provide them with a supply of high-quality feedstock for their food grade container requirements.
Is the system transparent and traceable and compliant with upcoming legislation?
In California, each Olyns Cube is registered as a CalRecycle “Certified Recycler" that is fully compliant with California’s strict beverage container recycling legislation. To be compliant with this certification, rigorous transparency is required. Our Cubes are designed to be compliant with all the legislation currently known to us.
Do you have plans to expand the system outside North America?
Absolutely. Although the North American market does contain significant opportunities, upcoming and current EU legislation have created a compelling market for RVMs in many EU countries. We have also received many inquiries for our products from the Middle East and Asia and expect to expand there in the upcoming years.
You have called the lack of plastics recycling a global emergency. The Cube offers an option to increase plastics recycling and to tackle the problem of plastic waste. What other alternatives are there?
The best solution to minimise waste is obviously to create less of it. Recently, I have been greatly encouraged by businesses who are working hard with simple solutions that address the problem creatively. As an example, I have noticed Hyatt hotels is using refillable containers for their hotel toiletries instead of small single use containers and British Airways is using disposable wooden cutlery for their inflight meals. These are small but meaningful steps in ways that need to be adopted universally. Having said this, plastic is such a good storage and transportation medium that it’s hard to imagine a near-term world without it. In this case, businesses do need to better understand the critical role they play in the recycling process and the value that their customers put on it. In fact, 85% of people in 28 countries told Ipsos that manufacturers and retailers need to take responsibility for reducing, reusing, and recycling plastic packaging. Some businesses do see this as business opportunity and provide their customers with recycling or reuse services that their customers value and appreciate creating greater brand loyalty…and profits. Ideally, all consumer-facing businesses need to take these responsibilities seriously, clearly identify the opportunities for recycling wins and fund some form of consumer recycling into their business operations.