The consumer and the Circular Economy – what’s in it for them?

Posted on 24th June, 2019 Under Blog News

Trying to persuade consumers to engage in the Circular Economy (CE) in any meaningful way is perhaps one of the biggest challenges that the world faces in moving to a resource efficient future.

Paul McSweeney, founder and CEO of ZeroNet Services, the creators of the ZeroNet domestic reverse logistics network discusses how his company’s technology is helping to put the CE on the map in Scotland by reinventing how unwanted products and materials are collected from the home as well as deploying innovative ‘zero-waste’ models that can dramatically reduce consumption.

Many years ago, in the early 1990s, I had the pleasure of attending a marketing conference in Dublin’s Point Depot, the largest conference arena in the city. For 6 weeks prior to the event, there took place a veritable media assault campaign in the local press to persuade us all to partake in this event. Bearing in mind that this was before the era of social media, it took a very specific form of persuasion – bribery! – to get a large cohort of business people to attend. In the end, a case of wine, a subscription to Time magazine and a candlelit dinner for two sealed the deal, and around 7,000 of Dublin’s great and good parted with £100 – yet received £150 in giveaways!

Our host at the Point Depot that day, the redoubtable American marketeer Murray Raphel, pointed out that all these giveaways were sponsored by 3rd parties and whilst targeted at individuals, the event itself was paid for our employers. He pointed out that the whole purpose of the giveaways was to target that ‘greed-chip’ that motivates all of us. He even jokingly referred to this phenomenon as WII-FM – the ‘What’s In It For Me’ radio station playing all day long in everybody’s head!

Fast forwarding to the present day, I am often reminded of this event when pondering the challenge of how to get consumers to engage with the CE. Our company is currently piloting an innovative collection technology in Stirling as part of a wider Scottish roll-out – in brief, the ZeroNet technology platform consists of a user app that allows householders to register different kinds of unwanted items, including WEEE, textiles, cables and many more – and links these to a driver app in a way that allows direct doorstep recovery for these post-consumer products and materials. During a small pilot conducted in Stirling in March of this year, we were struck by the feedback from a number of householders that the ultra-convenience of having a doorstep collection was what made the service so attractive. In spite of the many – and sometimes arcane – benefits of moving to circularity, the number one attraction was still convenience!

Looking beyond the convenient doorstep recovery of everyday categories of unwanted stuff, we are also planning to trial so-called Circular Economic Business Models – or CEBMs – that promise to transform how we consume – and do so in a way that minimises or even eliminates waste.

An example of a Circular Economy Business Model (CEBM) – consumer context

One fact that demonstrates how early-stage the CE still is in terms of consumer adoption is the relative scarcity of any real domestic examples of CEBMs that have been deployed at serious scale. We could write a whole blog on this subject alone, but it is encouraging to see some ‘green shoots’ now emerge from years of background research work from industry and academia. One exciting example of a CEBM is the ‘Loop’ initiative – described as a “circular shopping platform that replaces single-use disposable packaging with durable, reusable packaging. Consumers subscribe and order products that arrive in durable, reusable or fully recyclable packaging made from materials such as alloys, glass, and engineered plastics. Once the products — such as ice cream, shampoo, and spices — are used, customers place empties back into the tote, schedule a free pick-up, and the system makes sure the products get automatically replenished*”. This is just an example of the kind of CEBM that the ZeroNet could help to promote more widely especially when you consider that these kinds of services will never scale unless we can figure out how to ‘close the loop’ in optimising both the delivery and collection events.

Next steps

There is clearly a considerable appetite for periodic, direct doorstep recovery services that cater for many categories of post-consumer products and materials. Such solutions, when provided at urban scale can actually create a transparent and predictable ‘reverse supply chain’ for either brands or reprocessors/re-use organisations and thus solve one of the conundrums of the CE. It is also clear that services that permit the simple doorstep replenishment of Fast Moving Consumer Goods/(FMCG) products can offer consumers a huge convenience advantage over the traditional supermarket route to replenishment. Not to mention the elimination of packaging waste through re-use, another CE goal.

The next stage of our project is to begin the process of scaling the ZeroNet service to a much larger test group – ideally around 10-15k homes. This will allow the technology and logistical components of the ZeroNet to be stress-tested and equally importantly, the whole consumer proposition will also need to be developed and refined. Whilst convenience is not exactly high on the list of CE characteristics, in another sense, if that is the hook that allows large scale consumer adoption of the CE, then why not focus on that? Given the well understood relationship between climate change mitigation and the CE, then clearly, there will be something in it – for all of us.

Check out more about the Loop initiative on at https://loopstore.com/

Learn more about the ZeroNet at https://www.thezeronet.com/

Funding from Zero Waste Scotland enabled the initial research and technical development resulting in the first ZeroNet trial in Stirling in March 2019.

What is the ZeroNet

The ZeroNet is the world’s first cloud based technology platform designed explicitly around the logistical requirements of the Circular Economy. At its heart, it is an optimised collection logistics network designed to transform the way in which post-consumer products and materials are recovered from the household including WEEE (electrical and electronic waste), garments and textiles both generic and branded, cables and many, many other categories of material/product. Plans also exist to introduce so-called ‘Circular Economy Business Models’ – CEBMs – to the platform in time. These offer the promise to radically transform current consumption models.

Key highlights of the ZeroNet:

  • An intelligent collection (‘reverse’) logistics network designed to optimise household recovery – and especially reuse – of post-consumer products and materials
  • Consists of a user app which manages collection requests for wide variety of categories and a driver app which permits a highly optimised and granular recovery service that can be used by a variety of logistical partners
  • A launch focus on small WEEE (electronic and electrical waste), with the support of Scotland based IT Asset Disposal (ITAD) specialist Re-tek 
  • Launch support from the Scottish Government via Zero Waste Scotland
  • Plans to deploy the network to every home in Scotland
  • Wide support from a variety of global brands including Apple, Dell, HP, B&Q, Unilever, H&M, Nespresso and many more
  • The ability to support emerging resource-efficient/Circular Economy Business Models (CEBMs) such as servitisation (e.g. ‘Light as a service’ and ‘Ink as a service’). Such models – difficult to achieve – can effectively eliminate waste and represent one of the critical cornerstones of the Circular Economy
  • Support ongoing from several London Borough Councils
  • Long-standing relationship with the Royal Mail who see our technology as offering them the potential to transform their ‘doorstep’ relationship with the UK’s c. 27m households