Olyns has launched what is technically a reverse vending machine that will make it easier (or more personally worthwhile) for consumers to recycle plastic. The elegant and convenient solution is aimed at helping to meet the 1 billion pounds of commercial demand for recycled plastic (rPET). I got to chat with the founder and CEO of Olyns, Philip Stanger, and he shared how this idea came about and confirmed that, yes, consumers actually get paid to recycle their plastics. He explained how it worked and how the company supports a gig economy (think Doordash and Uber Eats).
Before I dive into the interview, I’m going to recap the press release where Stanger, Tim Carey of PepsiCo, and Jimmi Costillas of Safeway all shared their thoughts about this brilliant solution to recycling plastic. Keep in mind that, each year, 86% of the world’s plastic is not recycled. Olyns will help bring that number down.
“The lack of plastics recycling is a global emergency. At Olyns, we are helping meet the critical demand for recycled plastic that otherwise would end up in our landfills and oceans,” Stanger said in the press release.
“We offer a convenient and rewarding infrastructure for consumers to recycle, empower gig workers to have a positive impact on our environment, and help brands target their audiences on our sustainable media platform.”
PepsiCo partnered with Olyns to produce a pilot program in one Safeway store that is now collecting around 1,000 containers. There will be more Olyns machines launching in Safeway stores in Milpitas and Santa Clara later this month.
Tim Carey, Vice President of Sustainability at PepsiCo Beverages North America, said:
“PepsiCo is committed to action, but we recognize that there is no single approach that works everywhere, and sustainable progress requires collaboration across industries. We are proud to partner with Olyns to make recycling more accessible for consumers and to do our part to continue supporting a closed-loop system where packaging never becomes waste.”
Each Olyns machine compresses and stores over 1,000 plastic bottles, 850 aluminum cans, and 50 glass bottles. Each machine can deliver over one and a half metric tons of clean and recycled PET per year. Also, the machine is sleek and sexy — not smelly or ugly as one would think a recycling bin to be.
Jimmy Costillas, Director of Front End Operations for Safeway, said:
“At Safeway, we are committed to adding solutions that have a positive impact on the environment and give consumers convenient ways to contribute to this important effort.
“We are excited to partner with Olyns on this pilot program at select locations. The Olyns platform is compelling because it provides value to our customers with a streamlined convenience and instant benefits to redeem CRV containers while they’re shopping.”
The Olyns machine crushes and separates materials and uses AI-image recognition for dynamic deposit returns. It deploys touchless NFC login via the Olyns mobile app. Olyns can refund consumers through its app via Paypal for every container they deposit in the machine.
The machines are uniquely serviced with the aid of the gig economy. Members sign up through the Olyns mobile app to receive “empty machine” alerts to pick up and deliver deposited containers to recycling centers.
Notably, there are 10 states with bottle bills — bottle deposit laws to encourage recycling and in these states.
Olyns machines have another service that helps fund more consumer recycling incentives and company growth. That service is that of a media platform. 88% of consumers want brands to help them live more sustainably and this serves gives brands an opportunity to reach this audience as they are recycling. The press release stated:
“The dual-purpose screens can air inspiring content to drive the importance of recycling, and act as a powerful advertising network to communicate with millions of consumers and influence purchase decisions at points of sale.”
CleanTechnica Interview With Philip Stanger
1. What inspired this idea? It’s kind of like a reverse vending machine where you put in the plastic and get paid.
Philip Stanger: “It is a reverse vending machine and, frankly, there are other reverse vending machines that perform a similar mechanical function. What we were trying to do though was to provide a new business model for the world of recycling. I was previously with Apple and took great interest to what was happening to the environment — the negative things that were happening to the environment. I have young children.
“And I started to focus particularly on the plastics world because it seemed that although it was a complicated reason, it seemed that the main reason was that nothing was working, that the business model was broken. So, really, the question that we were asking ourselves was, ‘Can we try to alleviate some of the issues around low recycling and low redemption rates with a different business model associated with recycling?‘ So the machine that you see is the solution to that.
“What we were trying to do was leverage the location. Consumers would tell us again and again that they need convenience and they need incentives before they recycle. So we said, if we provide them convenience, that generally there’s going to be a lot of people frequenting these things. The idea came to leverage those locations with lots of folks by selling advertising.
“We thought, ‘Is this a way of being able to actually have a different business model around recycling?’ And that is the genesis of the idea and the machine. Since then, of course, it’s developed a lot further.”
2a. How is Olyns able to pay consumers to recycle their plastics? Is there a pay scale? How do payments work?
PS: “In California and the bottle bill states, there is a deposit that you as the consumer would pay for the beverage and beverage container. And then you return that beverage container and get your deposit back. So, in those bottle bill states, where returning those deposits, the states provide us the reimbursement for that deposit plus handling fees and various everything else.
“That money goes to the operating system that we have. It’s basically a Door Dash for recycling — a gig network for folks who are interested in doing this. They’re the ones who are picking up the materials and taking them out of the machine and to the processor. They get paid the amount of money for the recycling element.
“In the non-bottle bill states, we basically have a game. … Each container has a value to play the game. You can win big prizes or small prizes, but it becomes a game of chance at that point. So, we don’t pay out every time but we pay out enough to make it very interesting for people.
“Right now, we’re just piloting in California and we are using the model where people are getting the redemption rate. We would love to expand the machine into the states where there is very little recycling and there is no bottle bill. Around 50% of the American public has no access to recycling, which is a number that amazed me, but that is the case. So our goal is to provide these machines in those locations where people can’t recycle any other way.”
2b. Helping the homeless.
This wasn’t a planned question, but I’ve been homeless before and in many cases it’s homeless folks who are recycling cans to make some change for food. Alternatively, I’ve seen the litter around homeless camps and trash in the parks. Although homeless people aren’t the only ones who litter, this idea made me think that this could be a convenient way for those who are struggling to survive to make extra money. I shared this with Phillip and he agreed.
PS: “The weight of some of these societal ills shouldn’t rest on the unfortunate few percent. It should be shared among the people creating the problem. So what we’re finding is that the machine is actually appealing to a whole bunch of demographic groups that previously didn’t take these containers in for redemption.
“In a lot of states, it is those unfortunates that are making money from this. That’s not to say they won’t benefit from this — they will. And we will be providing money to charities to help them out, because we realize that it is a big part of their income.”
“It’s a complex infrastructure all around. In California, because there are so few redemption places where people can redeem, it seems to be the majority of folks recycling are homeless people that are generating revenue from it. They help enormously in keeping our cities clean from this.”
3. How can a business advertise on the Olyns media platform?
PS: “We have packages for exclusives in nine categories of beverages. So those are the standard beverages such as water, soft drinks, energy drinks, fruit juices, etc. People can sponsor or have an exclusive on those categories for a period of time for a bunch of machines. On top of that, because our network isn’t as large as we want it to be yet, we have a lot of local advertising.
“The local advertising is similar to what you hear on the radio station. Local businesses would like to leverage the communications ability of these machines. These are 65-inch full-motion video screens, so they are capable of a quite dramatic impact, frankly.
“And one other thing is that over the past few years, we’ve started to notice that sustainability sells. This may not have been so true ten years ago, but in the past five years, the NYU School of Business put out a very interesting report that indicated that sustainability marketed products were growing seven times faster than conventionally marketed ones. And although they were only about 16% of the market — the CPG market — they were 55% of the growth.
“So people are putting their money where their mouth is. This gives an advertiser or a brand the ability to put their money where their mouth is. Instead of being criticized for greenwashing and saying ‘we’re sustainable,’ they’re actually showing that they are supporting a business that is directly removing plastic and aluminum and recycling it straight back into new containers.
“It really is a matter of being in touch with us for advertising. We are developing a bunch of software that will allow folks to be able to go and do this themselves, sort of like Google Adwords for real spaces.
“We’re certainly getting a lot of positive responses regarding our idea, and as you may know, Pepsi is one of our partners. Pepsi was very instrumental. We pitched them the idea a year and a half ago and they got quite excited about it, so they’ve been very instrumental in getting the company up and running and providing the initial funds to get the development going. We’ve been very grateful for them and they’re great partners.”
Is there anything you would like to add?
PS: “The Olyns experience is really three parts. One is the machine that you see. The machine identifies — it uses contact login. It logs into your account when you put a container in. It identifies and sorts it. In California, it puts it in either PT plastic, glass, or aluminum. And then it crushes it and then it sends in an alert.
“The second part is the consumer app. In California, it allows you to collect your earnings, to cash out. It shows your environmental impact. Outside of California, it’s got this whole gamification element that we haven’t released yet.
“The third part is that gig servicer, which is part of the consumer app but it’s a different area. If you sign up as a gig servicer, it opens up to you. You get the alert from the machine to the app saying, ‘I’m full, come and empty me.’ Once they approach the machine, there’s a whole bunch of technology that kicks in.
“It allows them to open up the machine, allows them to report on the machine’s condition, and then, they take the material and they have a certain amount of time to take it to a processor and they get paid for that service. Since the machines are closely located, someone can service more than one machine on a route and make fairly decent money. That’s the Olyns experience.
“In our pilots at the locations we have, we have been getting really overwhelmingly positive responses from folks. Initially, we had these assumptions and we weren’t sure they were going to be borne out or not, but the pilots have shown that there is an enormous appetite. We’re getting probably 1,000 containers a day from each machine. Our initial thought was, ‘Well, we’ll have to empty the machine once every two to three days.’ The reality is that it’s almost twice a day now. They’re incredibly busy.”
“In our analysis, we found about 140,000 places in the United States where these will be appropriate — the grocery stores, airports, train stations, cinemas.”
In a world where advertising reigns king, Olyns has centered its business model around the king in order to accelerate the recycling of plastics. This is actually a genius idea and I quickly told Philip that we need one at my Albertsons (a Safeway store). I also suggested an idea for those wanting to recycle plastic. Perhaps give the option of donating to charities that are focused on sustainability.
I also think that he’s right — a lot of people want to recycle but don’t know how. Here in my neighborhood, we do have a recycling option, but many use the recycling bins for trash that can’t be recycled and the company won’t pick it up if there’s trash in it. This discourages recycling. However, a reverse vending machine style of recycling that pays and makes it fun to recycle via gamification is really brilliant. Think of the billions spent at casinos every day. Instead of spending money to win big, just recycle your plastics, glass, and aluminum.
Featured image designed by Johnna Crider with photos provided by Olyns.