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Updated: May 7, 2020

It seems like only yesterday that we had so much new interest in our technology for eliminating recycling bin contamination within offices that I was furiously trying to manage the supply chain in order to ensure product could be delivered to prospective paying customers. How fast things change. When all the corporate and government offices starting moving to work from home mode, and all the food courts closed down, the team and I had to think fast. One option was to sit around and hope for things to return to the way they were; second option was to try and find a new market for our technology. Hope is never a good business strategy, so I approached one of our corporate customers with an idea and they were incredibly supportive.

Coca Cola had paid for some smart bins but couldn't take delivery given their office was closed to staff. As a company, they are on the record as stating they are supportive of well run container deposit schemes (CDS), and recent moves show their commitment to increasing the supply of recycled PET plastic within Australia. The people I spoke to there were well aware of the contamination problem the Charopy technology was designed to solve, and so when I suggested loaning the bins they had paid for to small businesses impacted by coronavirus restrictions, they didn't hesitate to say yes.

We recently launched this initiative in the Sydney suburb of Beecroft, approximately 23 kms North West of the city. Below you can see a small restaurant owner, who also happens to be a Coca Cola customer, hosting one of these smart bins. Beecroft is a tight knit community with a small local shopping district that the locals are keen to support. In addition, the suburb doesn't have an existing Return & Earn CDS collection point, so it was a great place to trial this temporary pivot and new use for our product. Early signs are positive, and in this particular case, it has made a significant positive difference to the business featured.

I wrote 'temporary pivot' in the title of this post as I firmly believe the long term future for our technology lies with offices, food courts, hospitals, stadiums, schools and other locations where a reasonable number of single use drink containers are purchased and where ensuring a clean stream of 'CDS only' material is problematic. That said, nothing like a recession to make you re-think your assumptions and maybe over time I'll broaden my view as to the sites where Charopy has a role to play. I am sure that at some point in the not too distant future staff will start returning to their offices, food courts will reopen, stadiums will be full of fans, children will return to schools, and sustainability managers will renew their focus on improving recycling outcomes within their organisations.

In the meantime, being able to make a difference to a struggling small business whilst still improving environmental outcomes seems like a very worthwhile temporary pivot - much better than just sitting around hoping for things to return to the way they were.

May 7th 2020 update to this post

I happened to drop into Pappastir in Beecroft yesterday and was very pleasantly surprised to see that the owner had two new workers in there making fresh dumplings to sell to his expanded customer base. A small business expanding during these challenging times - now that is a good news story. I was also very pleased to see the local community getting behind the Charopy CDS smart bin with a decent collection of plastic bottles and aluminium cans. He has already raised enough money to start supplying free food to some local people doing it tough at the moment, and the first meals have already gone out to some people in need.

It is great when a previously untested idea really works out the way you had hoped for. I've worked in innovation long enough to know that is definitely not always the case. It is even better to see both a local small business and some local residents being able to benefit, not to mention the improved recycling outcomes that come from diverting co-mingled kerbside recycling into the CDS stream. A real win - win - win at a time when wins are much harder to come by.

Earlier this week we were given the opportunity to take our new and improved version of the Charopy smart bin technology out to Macquarie University as they were hosting a number of important guests at the same time. A previous supporter of Charopy, the NSW Minister for Customer Service, Victor Dominello was there, the Mayor of Ryde Jerome Laxale was there, and the NSW Minister for Finance and Small Business, Damien Tudehope was even kind enough to let us film him experiencing our source separation technology for the first time. Minister Tudehope appears first in the video below.

Even prior to the invention of our smart bin we were seeing impressive results from our technological efforts, but this past week were were able to show people how far we have come since the first prototype bin we tested in schools, and then the more recent model that was released in a corporate office environment. With our new firmware upgrade this week we have significantly increased the speed of operation, through both improved database design and a much more efficient search algorithm. The end result (as you can see in the video above) is we have virtually eliminated any lag between the item being recognised and the locked flap being released to allowed the permitted recycling item to be entered into the bin. In a school the time lag is less of an issue; in an office, a factory or a shopping centre food court every one tenth of a second we can shave off the time taken to use the bin is expected to have a significant increase in overall satisfaction with the experience of using a Charopy smart bin. It is now possible to ensure an almost seamless experience when ensuring a contamination free CDS recycling bin within an office environment.

There was an article in the Sydney Morning Herald recenlty with the headline Sydney recycling plant to shut as market prices collapse, costs soar. On first impression that might have left a lot of people in despair, but the really important part of this article was buried deep within the copy.

...the cost of processing plastics and other materials had soared because buyers wanted much lower rates of contamination in the products.

So the real problem is really the contaminated bales, typically from co-mingled recycling, where different types of plastics such at PET and HDPE are not efficiently separated and all sorts of other contamination gets into the 'recycling' collection stream. This is one of the big advantages of a well run container deposit scheme, and Charopy are pleased to be feeding into that channel to ensure significantly improved recycling outcomes. As the article states, buyers of recycled material are looking for low rates of contamination, as and was discussed in an earlier blog post, the further upstream you can separate the good from the bad when it comes to recycling material and waste, the greater the chance your so-called recycling will end up actually being used for recycling.

This exactly the problem Charopy are working to solve. And we are working some great early customers who share this vision.

Back in November we piloted the first version of our smart bin technology in a number of schools, learning a lot in the process about how we would need to modify the design and the underlying technology, as well as some of the associated functionality in order to have a product relevant for a much wider market. I am pleased to say that we now have that product along with some amazing corporate clients who are piloting this in their offices over the coming months.

The photo below is deliberately taken side on, as we are still remaining a little coy about exactly how the bin works - we are not ready for full publicity on this innovation just yet. The key feature to be aware of is that the flap within the lid remains locked and only opens for eligible items, thereby ensuring that only the correct type of containers are put into the bin. The new version operates at over five times the speed of the first prototype and is a much cleaner design more suited to offices. That said, there is no reason why this technology couldn't be applied in any non kerbside location where recycling bin contamination is a problem. Primarily we see it being used in offices, shopping centres, factories and schools, but we have been asked about festivals and other public area spaces and this could also work. Reverse Vending Machines do a good job within the container deposit scheme today, but the market for Charopy is any location where a full RVM is not viable due to size or cost constraints.

For offices, the bin above is simply plugged into the wall (photo above is a 120 litre wheelie bin, but we also have a 240 litre version). If desired it can run on a battery, and we are even looking into a solar powered option. The technology can also be customised as part of an office fitout to be incorporated more elegantly into existing waste disposal infrastructure. We see this latter option being of particular interest not only to large office buildings, but for shopping centres where effective recycling in food courts presents some unique challenges, where there is a high number of single use drink containers sold, but where wheelie bins may not be suitable.

There is no doubt that the problem we are working to solve is a very real problem, and the early support we have received from people working in large companies with job titles like Head of Sustainability has been very heartwarming. It is great to be already working with some forward thinking companies who know that it is little use talking about sustainable practices if the waste created within their own office is not being recycled in the best possible way. Charopy is all about creating a highly effective method for separating specific items at source, or initial point of collection. That philosophy is summed up well in this quote from the EPA website

Source separated recyclables historically provide the cleanest materials with the highest revenues when sold. Effective source separation supports the highest and best use of materials and cleaner feedstock for producing recycled materials because there is less contamination.

When we first started working with schools on improving recycling outcomes via increased container deposit scheme adoption we saw some huge results, so we are quietly confident of having a similar impact with other non kerbside locations using this new technology.


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