Small-format packaging items like straws and lids make up 10% of all plastic packaging, but they are the hardest to recycle. Their design makes them prone to escape collection systems and end up in the environment, causing widespread damage across the globe, particularly to our oceans.
These disposable products can be useful when on-the-go, but it does not make sense to use them in a static environment such as the cinema.
As well as this, more than 50% of us in Ireland are confused about the recyclability of our waste, leading to high levels of waste cross contamination. This is also true internationally.
This should not be the case for cinemas/movie theaters, as they are a closed environment (people drink and eat inside the establishment, rather than on the go), and there are very few variables in terms of the waste stream, i.e. popcorn, drinks, and sweets.
Companies are under increasing pressure to transition away from their current, linear, single-use product systems to a more circular, sustainable solution. Positive environmental impact is becoming more and more important for members of the general public, while new laws calling for more sustainable standards are accelerating the aforementioned transition. All these things combined make this a very apt time for the development of a transferrable, scalable framework for the reduction of single-use plastic waste.
Emeral Day plans to be the company offering the best solution in this space with Project GreenScreen – a service that aims to replace single-use plastic cups and lids with reusable ones, and to ensure single-use plastic straws are collected and sent to be recycled correctly.
GreenScreen's key novel feature lies in the design of its cleaning process for its reusable cup/lid system. One of the main difficulties in establishing a reusable cup/lid system is issue of cleaning the products. Installing, maintaining and running washing facilities onsite requires capital, space and extra employees, while outsourcing the cleaning to a centralised washing facility does not allow for a very scalable business, due to the high cost of creating these facilities. GreenScreen believes it has the solution - tapping into networks of local individuals who can provide the washing services in their homes, and using the money saved by not having to buy and dispose of single-use products to reward these participants for their efforts. Meanwhile the single-use straws are separated and stored onsite until their quantity is great enough to warrant correct recycling.
When a business decides to adopt the GreenScreen service, they can be confident that all of their waste will be managed in the most sustainable way possible, and they will be able to use our brand, synonymous with transparency and trust, to promote their environmental-consciousness to their customers. The business pays an initial fee so that we can provide them with a volume of reusable cups/lids tailored to their needs, and then a monthly fee on a subscription basis. GreenScreen's proprietary logistics software will then allow local individuals to opt in to the system (after being approved), collect, clean and return the cups/lids, and receive a payment and other rewards (e.g. free cinema tickets) for doing so. The software will also allow the business owner to manage their stock, track their products, etc.
GreenScreen will also train employees to their new procedure, which promises to be more efficient and enjoyable than their current experience. Working with cinema employees, we are identifying pain points in the current cinema employee experience (e.g. rushing to clean screens in between viewings), and developing methods that will allow them to separate the beverage containers from the rest of the waste, and the straws from the beverage containers, all while making life a little easier for them. Likewise, we are working with cinema-goers to see how their experience can be improved, without relying on them to change their current behaviour (for example, a quick video before the movie starts to say "By choosing ODEON and Emeral Day, you can be guaranteed that your food and beverage containers will be either reused or recycled, thank you for making a positive contribution to our environment").
Note: Attached documents correspond with the steps carried out here and go into far greater detail than is provided below.
1. Thought process:
We both have experience working with biotech/sustainability startups and share a personal interest in this area. Despite this, all too frequently we are uncertain of how to correctly dispose of our lunch waste. This seemed absurd to us, and so, after discovering the challenge brief, we were inspired to identify industries where disposable products and confusion at the bin could be eliminated. After deliberation, we decided that cinemas were the ideal place to start.
Going to various cinemas allowed us to take extra note of their current waste management practices.
3-5. Evaluation of the market & existing solutions:
We carried out a lot of online research to understand what products were currently on the market (reusable/recyclable cups, etc.) and what initiatives had been successful/unsuccessful (e.g. reusable coffee cup schemes). As our original plan was to simply substitute current materials/products with more sustainable ones (e.g. paper straws, built-in lids), this led to an in-depth review of materials being branded as "recyclable/copostable." One key material that showed up a lot in the research was PLA, and so we dedicated a substantial amount of time to understanding this material, its requirements for being recycled/composted, the facilities capable of providing this in Ireland, etc. After careful thought, we decided that PLA was not a viable alternative and that there did not appear to be any pre-existing product that would suit our objectives. This is what encouraged us to aim for a reusable system.
6. Business Rationale:
We consulted with our board of advisors (listed below) for advice on how best to tackle this challenge, as 3/4 of the members had experience with leading sustainability business efforts in the past. We were strongly advised that, in order to make a real impact, we would need to find a way to make a profitable, scalable business out of sustainability. However, we were also advised that focusing on both business and sustainability together would not work well - we needed to develop the sustainability aspect first and then make it attractive to businesses.
It was at this point that we brainstormed different ways of creating a reusable cup system. Working with a staff member from our local cinema, we were able to understand the barriers to obvious approaches. For example, using reusable equipment means that it needs to be cleaned. However, a cinema will likely not have the space to install dishwashers, nor will they want to spend the money to install or run them. Outsourcing the cleaning to a centralised cleaning facility would not work either as this would not likely be a profitable or scalable business model.
We then came up with the idea of tapping into existing networks of local individuals who could provide the cleaning services in their homes. If we could get cinemas to use reusable cups/lids, the money they would save from not having to buy and dispose of single-use products could be used to reward individuals for their cleaning services. We brainstormed the idea a little further and decided that the best approach would be to validate the core concept from a business point of view (could we offer individuals enough of an incentive to participate, while keeping costs low enough for the cinema and also ensuring there was money for us to make), before developing the sustainable solution any further.
7. Preliminary Financial Justification of Decentralised Public Cleaning:
Using numbers on the costs of waste disposal for two different-sized cinemas in Ireland, combined with purchase cost estimates from Alibaba.com, we were able to produce conservative estimates as to how much money is spent on buying and disposing of cups, lids and straws each week. Though conservative, these numbers were still promising (we could offer individuals $40 per 200 cups washed). The next step was to see if this incentive would be sufficient for individuals.
8. Market Validation:
Talking to cinema staff, potential individuals for the cleaning network, and cinema-goers, we received very positive feedback on our general concept and were confident to begin developing it more.
9. Straw Integrity Testing:
Multiple lab tests were carried out on a variety of straw materials, inlcuding paper, wheat, glass, bamboo and steel. These tests showed that wheat would not be a suitable alternative to plastic straws, but all other options passed the tests. These products were also subjected to informal taste tests with friends, and all were deemed acceptable. Our next step, then, was to see if reusable straws, cups and lids were feasible from a cleaning point of view. $40 and free cinema tickets might seem like a high incentive for cleaning 200 cups, but not if it would take a long time or cause annoyance or frustration.
10. Reusable Cup Cleaning Investigations:
We carried out some basic washing and drying tests in the home, both with a dishwasher and with manual cleaning. We recorded the time taken and any other findings we had not anticipated or overlooked (e.g. the draining board filled up quite quickly, so air-drying would be a very slow process). One finding we found particularly surprising was the time and effort taken to clean and dry each of the reusable straws. We were forced to eliminate them as an option, and so focused on the idea of using paper straws as an alternative to he plastic straws currently in use.
It is important to note that around this time we received an email from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, stating that we would likely have to use a dishwasher to ensure cleanliness.
11. Summary of Meeting with Peter Goodwin, Director of Closed Loop Environmental Services:
The meeting with Peter was extremely beneficial and he was up-to-date with our entry and all of our attachments, which we really appreciated. One of the key take-aways from our discussion was that our plan to use paper straws instead of plastic straws would likely not work as paper straws are so much more expensive. However, he also shared the great idea of continuing use of single-use plastic straws, but ensuring that, when sorting the reusable cups and lids, the straws be separated and stored onsite until their quantity were sufficient for correct recycling.
Another important issue raised was that of the carbon footprint of our solution. Peter pointed out that reusable cups would only be better than single-use cups if they were used a certain amount of times, and so we had to figure out this number and ensure our system would allow for this.
12. Environmental Assessment:
The environmental assessment covered everything from production costs and transport to washing and reuse. The results show that the cups would have to be used approx. 15 times to break-even with single-use plastics, and we are confident that our system can achieve far more than this.
13. Business Model Canvas:
Please see attached.
14. Stakeholder Experience Research:
Due to the time constraints of this challenge, we have spent most of our time focusing on the sustainability aspect of the idea. However, we have still spoke with cinema employees and cinema-goers regarding their past experiences with the cinema, their pain points and their ideal experiences. We plan to work more with them in the future to improve their experience in a way that is also complementary to the aims of GreenScreen (for example, making it more efficient and less stressful for employees to clean screens in between viewings, while also allowing them to separate the beverage containers from the rest of the waste).
Following this challenge, our next step is to simulate some trials within the house (role-playing a cinema environment) to test ideas and uncover any unforeseen barriers. We understand that maintaining hygiene and managing logistics will likely be our biggest issues, and while we have ideas on how to overcome these, we would like to test them out and develop them more before going for a pilot study in our local cinema. However, we are adamant on running this pilot study with our local cinema before the end of this year, and we aim to iterate fast once we do.
Fergal O'Farrell, MSc - 20 years experience in business and finance
Con Sheahan, PhD - Logistics and supply chain management
Dan Hayes, PhD - CEO, Celignis Ltd
Professor JJ Leahy - Biofuels & Renewable Resources