by Sherma E Benosa

Once considered exclusive and primarily associated with privilege, Zero Waste stores have come a long way. Newer breeds of entrepreneurs have made it their mission to address this major criticism of Zero Waste stores being “too niche” by making them more accessible to the general public. But more importantly, these stores collectively showcase various environmentally conscious ways to deliver products—some revolutionizing the traditional concepts of refill and return-deposit using digital technology and marketing suave, while others focused on reintegrating these old sustainable systems into the fabric of everyday consumption practices.

Singapore’s barePack for example has pioneered an app-enabled, membership-based platform to loan reusable food containers for people on the go in partnership with food outlets and leading delivery platforms. Australia’s Bring Me Home, meanwhile, also an app-based platform, rescues surplus food from becoming food waste by connecting people to restaurants at the end-of-day—allowing them to avail of huge discounts for quality food that otherwise would go to the bin.

Indeed, various models of stores adhering to the same principles have grown, offering something patterned after good old practices, but responding to the needs of modern times.

So what is it that sets these entrepreneurs apart? What is it about the way they work that enables them to make a real difference the way billion-dollar multinational corporations are unable to? Our interviews with various enterprises across Asia Pacific showed the following six characteristics:

  1.       True Understanding of the Problem

When Jane Kou founded Bring Me Home, the mission was clear: “to reduce food waste by making surplus food accessible and affordable.”

Food waste is a big issue in the Asia-Pacific region. In Australia alone, over 7.3 million tons of food waste was generated from 2016 to 2017. Jane knew that solving the food waste problem would make a huge difference in addressing food scarcity. “A lot of the end-of-the-day food that might get chucked out if it’s unsold—no one knows where to find them… so that’s why we created the app,” she shared.

With the launch of Bring Me Home in 2017, consumers were able to avail of the same quality food at discounts ranging from 30% to 70%, thanks to the app. Moreover, partner food outlets increased their foot traffic during traditionally slow hours, increasing their profits and minimizing their food waste.

  1.         Genuine Desire to Make the World a Better Place

While the Coca-Colas and Nestles of the world continue to promise to make their packaging recyclable—an unambitious commitment they have not made progress in despite their billions of dollars—these small entrepreneurs have been rolling out their own solutions that are already creating a positive change in their communities.

Roxane Uzureau, founder of barePack Singapore, said that they are guided by their mission of replacing the millions of disposables used daily in food and beverage takeaway and delivery. “I have always been quite sensitive to the notion of waste. It’s something that genuinely upsets me. Everything has an environmental cost, even what you consider free,” she said.

Officially launched in Singapore in 2020, the barePack app has enabled its users to order food using reusable containers which they could return by dropping them off at member-restaurants and other drop-off points.

  1.     Changing Consumer Mindsets and Behaviors

When these entrepreneurs started with their enterprise, their communities did not have a good understanding of the concept of Zero Waste. Thus, educating the consumers became integral to their advocacy.

“We need everybody to understand that the business stands for a sole purpose: to make this planet a better and cleaner place,” said Rangi Jory Madarang, co-founder of AMGU, a plastic-free store based in Central Philippines.

According to Rangi, there are times when people who are not familiar with Zero Waste would visit their store and come out with a working knowledge on the concept. “They are amazed with what they learned inside the store, and then they come back and become our regulars,” she said.

Cheryl Anne Low, founder of NUDE, a store based in Malaysia, recalled the times they taught children about the concept. “Many children would pop in for biscuits and snacks, so we would teach them to bring their own containers. They would go home, tell their parents, and their curious parents would come visit us. Their praises for what we were doing in teaching their children about the environment and how something like packaging can be harmful to marine life and animals, were always heartwarming. The parents appreciated what we were doing, and the kids came every day,” she shared.

According to Bittu John Kalungal, proprietor of India’s 7-9 Green Store, seeing respected members of the community modeling good behavior, like bringing their own containers, inspires other people to do the same.

 “A doctor came to the store with his own container to refill sugar. Another guy was in the shop. This guy watched the doctor refill his own containers, then came to me and asked me:  ‘Does he always come with his own containers?” shared Bittu. “That should be the change coming from everyone. From this incident, the guy realized it’s not bad to bring containers from home and buy by refill. In our society, 20% of the people set the trend and the rest look up at these 20% and try to live like them. If we can change the attitude of the 20%, we can make a huge difference in our society.” 

  1.       Finding Suppliers

Another key to providing quality and affordable products is having suppliers that are aligned with the Zero Waste goal.

“Making the suppliers understand the reasons why we would like to buy package-free from them and coming up with workable realistic solutions for both parties is important,” NUDE’s Cheryl Ann said, adding that to guarantee the quality of the products they carry, they make sure to go “into the detail of the ingredients and do research on each of the ingredients.”

Alison Batchelor, proprietor of Vietnam’s Refillables Hoi An, agrees. For her store, she traced the makers of various products and built a reliable supplier base that would not compromise on affordable, good-quality, refillable, and eco-friendly products.

When one of her first suppliers understood that Alison wanted to target a low-income demographic consumer base, they provided discounts on wholesale prices. These discounts were offset by minimized packaging costs. 

Similarly, another supplier made their packaging fully plastic-free because of Allison. “They used brown paper but there was like a plastic wrap around the soap on the inside. It can’t look eco on the outside and then not be on the inside, so they worked with me to redesign their packaging,” Alison shared. 

  1.       Revolutionizing, Rather than Co-opting, Old Systems

Besides BarePack and Bring Me Home, Enviu is another example of an organization that designs innovative reuse and refill models to reduce plastic pollution. Although not technically a store but rather an organization that develops and pilots various ventures in several countries, Enviu also runs the Zero Waste Living Lab (ZWLL) program to tackle plastic pollution in Indonesia. Under this program, they have created noteworthy models, among them Koinpack, QYOS, and CupKita.

Koinpack provides warung (a highly frequented store) customers reusable bottles as alternatives to single-use plastic sachets. Customers get cashbacks and incentives upon returning these bottles. Koinpack delivers new stock and ensures the empty packs are collected, cleaned, and refilled. Since its establishment in March 2020, Koinpack has avoided the use of more than 10,000 sachets and is currently active in  five warungs and 10 waste banks.

Also following the “borrow-reuse-return” scheme, CupKita allows customers of popular cafés to rent a reusable cup using a mobile app and get a cashback upon returning it. This system is a replication of Muusea company facilitating companies, campuses and coffee shops with reusable items in Bali, Singapore and Hong Kong. Each cup is individually coded and must be returned within seven days. The endeavor envisions saving anywhere from 525 kilograms to around 2,000 kilograms of disposables per store annually.

QYOS maintains 24/7 cashless and touch-less vending machines, which dispense precise amounts of product (dish soap, body wash, or even hand sanitizer), enabling households to refill at the QYOS station instead of purchasing their daily necessities in single-use plastic packaging. 

“We determine what business interventions are needed along the value chain. We validate new, sustainable business models by creating, replicating, or accelerating ventures. We use what’s already there and add what’s missing,” said Anne Poggenpohl, venture builder at Enviu

  1. Giving Back to Community by Patronizing Local Products and Sharing Profits

As if their enormous motivation to spark more environmentally friendly and sustainable consumption practices is not enough, many Zero Waste entrepreneurs manage to recenter their goals on improving the lives of their partner communities. 

Juana Zero is a community store established by Mother Earth Foundation—a Philippine-based organization that helps communities develop and implement Zero Waste programs by partnering with local governments and capacitating waste workers. The goal of the store is to demonstrate that neighborhood stores—a major point-of-sale of products on plastic sachets—can sell the same basic needs without using plastic packaging. Besides inspiring other neighborhood stores to do the same, Juana Zero also gives back by giving a part of their proceeds to MEF’s scholarship fund for the dependents of their stakeholders: the waste collectors. 

Meanwhile, Sierreza, also from the Philippines, started out as a non-profit aimed at supporting local farmers and indigenous peoples. Realizing that these communities need a steady market for their products, they established a farmer-centered Zero Waste store to sell local produce.

“Together with the farmers, we set a fair price at the start: something that would give the farmers income. The good thing about that is that they did not need to overproduce because even if they produce less, the price would still be competitive,” said Che Abrigo, founder of Sierreza.

Two years since the start of the project, Sierreza’s partner farmers have not only learned to be Zero Waste in every aspect of their production, they have also become h to conceptualize and run projects for themselves.

So what sets Zero Waste enterprises apart? The models show that creating environmental and social values are not impossible when doing business. It is not only possible but also desired by consumers. The little extras that they bring to the community, are not really little in terms of impact, nor are they mere extra. On the contrary, they are the heart of Zero Waste enterprises.

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This article is part of the book, BUSINESS UNUSUAL: Enterprises paving the way to Zero Waste, a collection of feature articles on select enterprises in Asia Pacific that practice and promote Zero Waste principles. Published by Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, the publication may be downloaded for free at www.no-burn.org/Business-Unusual.