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Oko Cup: Eliminating Coffee Cup Pollution with a Smart Circular Economy Solution

Oko is a transformative re-usable cup system that enables consumers to act sustainably in a convenient and cost-effective way.

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Lead Applicant Organization Name

Green Circle Innovations

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small company (under 50 employees)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

www.greencircleinnovations.com

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • Under 1 year

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Balllina, Co Mayo

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

Ireland

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Ireland

What country is your selected Place located in?

Ireland

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Ireland is a small island nation on the edge of Europe. It is world renowned for its hospitality, culture and incredible scenery, earning itself nicknames such as “The Emerald Isle” and “The Land of a Thousand Welcomes”.

However, despite its distinct and often untouched landscape, which portray the natural beauty of the Place, Ireland and its people need to adapt to the challenges of global climate change. This has been a struggle thus far – Ireland has the highest average household carbon emissions in Europe [1].

A particularly prevalent problem is the widespread use of disposable coffee cups across the country. Every hour, Irish people throw away 22,000 disposable coffee cups on average [2]. This approach to beverage consumption is entirely unsustainable, and Ireland needs to adopt more environmentally friendly approaches to meet its energy and waste targets as part of the Paris Renewable Energy Agreement.

The Green Circle Innovations team is composed of a mix of urban and rural dwelling Irish people with a commitment to developing a solution which can facilitate this change. We have uniquely identified a vision (named Oko) which can deliver the convenience and cost of disposable cups coupled with the sustainability benefits of re-useable alternatives.

The solution has been developed with a deep understanding of our Place – having studied the behaviours of the people, we understand the challenges of adopting sustainable practices. An example of this is our work to integrate our Vision with fuel stations. Irish people often commute via car for long distances, meaning that re-useable cups which stay in the car become cumbersome to clean and maintain. Our Oko Wash system has been designed to remove this barrier to adoption of sustainable technologies, and allow for a cleaner, greener Place.

[1] https://www.irishtimes.com/news/environment/irish-household-carbon-emissions-worst-in-eu-1.3460625

[2] https://www.thejournal.ie/coffee-cups-4135567-Jul2018/

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Ireland has diverse and increasingly multicultural society that is uniformly welcoming, hard-working and open to change. The country has gradually progressed from an economy mainly based on agriculture and primary sector work towards a modern, open and technology-focused nation with a highly skilled and educated workforce. Irish people are very conscious of the impact of their actions on the environment, with sustainability becoming a key issue for communities, businesses and government.

The people and government have shown an ability to become thought leaders and innovators in public health and environmental issues. The introduction of legislation in 2004 to introduce a ban on smoking in public venues was not only one of the first of its kind, but a hugely successful and innovative approach to a public health issue. Similarly, in 2002 Ireland became the first country to introduce legislation that created a levy on single use plastic bags. This levy resulted in a 90% decrease in the level of plastic bag use in Ireland and has been widely recognised by Irish people as a great success. It is our ambition to build our vision amongst a People and a Place that has pioneered innovative strategies to societal challenges.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

84000

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

4000000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

The European Commission aims to ban single use plastics such as disposable coffee cups by the year 2030. Of the 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic produced globally to date, only 9% has been recycled. Despite growing environmental and regulatory pressure, fundamental barriers to the widespread consumer adoption of reusable alternatives to the coffee cup remain. 

Plastic waste is a significant environmental issue which has major impacts upon climate, energy, health and biodiversity. The vast majority of plastic is non-biodegradable. As a result, plastic recycling on a national level is seen as the gold standard for the reduction of the amount of plastic which becomes waste.  Plastic recycling is, however, alarmingly inefficient - 79% of the world’s plastic waste accumulates in landfills or the natural environment. Furthermore, the value of plastic material recovered is also significantly lower.

Ireland has taken a global lead on the reduction of plastic waste, as outlined above, through the introduction of a world-first plastic bag levy. The European Commission’s Single Use Plastics Directive aims to achieve 55% recycled plastic by 2025 and pressurises member states to significantly reduce the consumption of plastic food containers and beverage cups. Key waste advocates and policymakers have highlighted that reducing the amount of disposable plastic used will be a key tenet of meeting these regulatory demands, leading to an increased focus on alternatives to recycling as a means of reducing global plastic waste.

A Growing Trend and Consumer Problem

Despite increases in the number of environmentally aware consumers, 500 billion disposable coffee cups are used each year.

Irish consumers are becoming increasingly more aware of the need to reduce their plastic consumption. A recent survey by Repak, an Irish recycling advocacy non-profit funded by several mass consumer-serving companies, states that in 2019 35% of Irish consumers were very engaged on the need to act sustainably, with a further 30% demonstrating “mediocre” engagement.

Despite the increasing wave of plastic waste awareness across Europe, and the additional of micro financial incentives from coffee chains such as Starbucks, barriers to the adoption of reusable cups still exist – according to the Starbucks Global Report for 2018, only 1.3% of customers received a discount for using a reusable cup. Clearly, existing solutions to this need, despite increased societal and regulatory pressure, have not allowed for the widespread adoption of an environmentally friendly solution.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Oko will address the challenges of widespread use of disposable plastics in beverage consumption by introducing a convenient, cost-efficient and sustainable alternative for consumers. 

Existing alternatives such as the compostable cup have achieved a similar level of convenience but are expensive and remain an environmental threat when not disposed of correctly and there is a current lack of widespread industrial composting infrastructure.

Reusable solutions have a high initial carbon footprint but with a high number of uses the environmental benefits of reduced container manufacturing and pollution can be realised. However, these solutions lack the convenience and price structure to disrupt the market (coffee chains offer an average 32c discount for reusable cups), with further issues such as maintenance and bacterial growth providing further inhibiting factors.

Green Circle Innovations has identified a clear gap in the current market: a beverage container solution which provides the environmental benefits of reusable cups, and the convenience and pricing structure of a disposable cup. The team has conducted extensive customer validation with opinion leaders in the Irish hot beverage industry to validate this hypothesis and understand further customer pain points. 

Through this process, the team has designed the Oko system, which comprises both the Oko Cup and the Oko Wash system. The Oko Cup is a sustainably produced re-usable cup which is expertly designed to improve ease of washing for long term maintenance. The Oko Wash system is an easy-to-use rapid wash device which leverages air-propelled water streams to remove debris and bacteria from the Oko Cup. This provides a convenient and highly cost effective system of maintaining re-usable cups over a longer period of time, reducing pollution and the carbon footprint of the beverage industry.

By providing a solution that provides the convenience and cost-efficiency of disposable cups for the user and the supplier, alongside the sustainability benefits of re-usable cups for governments and regulators, Green Circle Innovations has created a truly transformative technology that can address the challenges outlined.


High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Problem: Reusing and refilling consumer hot beverage containers has many benefits through eliminating plastic waste and reducing carbon emissions, but the current approaches have drawbacks in convenience and cost which need to be overcome to achieve market adoption. Key issues for reusable cup users are the maintenance and washing required to use the cup. We have identified a need for a beverage container solution as convenient as the disposable cup, and as sustainable as the reusable cup.

Solution: Green Circle Innovations has designed the Oko system which includes both the Oko Cup and the Oko Clean. The Oko Clean, specifically designed to fit the workflow of the coffee shop, uses a combination of techniques with a high-pressure water nozzle to achieve a complete clean of the Oko Cup, removing barriers to adoption such as bacterial growth and maintenance requirements. The Oko Cup is a user-friendly flip-top cup designed for ease of use by the consumer and to be easily cleaned with the Oko Clean.

Team: The team combines engineering excellence with product launch marketing expertise and early stage startup commercialisation experience. The team has a combined 25 international patents.

Vision: This idea fits with the European Strategy for a Plastics Circular Economy through providing a consumer-focused strategy to achieve significant CO2 and plastic waste reductions. The lives of the People and the structure of the Place will be significantly enhanced by the reduction of plastic waste through a transformative change in beverage consumption behaviour, with significantly less plastic pollution and carbon emissions having a positive effect on public health, the quality of primary sector industries and the environment.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Market State of the Art

Several innovations to reduce plastic waste in the beverage container market have been introduced to varying degrees of success. Key issues such as lengthy degradation times or barriers to adoption such as cost and bacterial growth remain.

Current alternatives to plastic disposable cups include biodegradable or compostable cups made from materials such as PLA, long-term reusable cups such as the KeepCup, and cup return schemes such as Cup Club. Despite the potential for significantly reduced degradation times over single use plastic cups, compostable cups remain an environmental threat given the lack of composting infrastructure available. Reusable solutions such as ceramic or stainless-steel cups and cup return schemes require a high number of uses (estimated at between 25 and 100) before any environmental benefit is realised due to the energy-intensive nature of their manufacture. Customer discovery conducted by the Green Circle Innovations team has highlighted that reusable cups owners often replace their cup before such milestones are reached, producing a net negative impact on the environment.

If usage milestones are met, the reuse of containers is a much more effective beverage container solution from an environmental perspective, as containers have the potential to be reused more than 1000 times. Reusable solutions can reduce container manufacture by 98%. The proposed Oko solution is designed to offer the necessary convenience and cost structure to allow this environmental impact to be realised.

An Innovation

Oko transfers best practices from chemical and industrial engineering facilities to the beverage container market to provide an innovative retail beverage container solution. Using Clean-In-Place technology, the existing retail workflow is maintained, removing barriers to sustainable environmental impact such as cost structure and convenience.

Clearly, current solutions to reduce plastic consumption in the beverage container market lack either convenience or environmental compatibility and are as such ineffective in meeting future regulatory goals for sustainability. Green Circle Innovations has identified an opportunity to develop a leaner, consumer-focused approach to allow greater environmental sustainability.

The Oko system is a disruptive re-usable beverage container (Oko Cup) coupled with a unique instant cleaning system (Oko Clean) for use in fast-service hot beverage retailers. Whereas existing re-useable cups rely on consumers to maintain and clean the beverage container, the Oko Cup is specifically designed to be cleaned for re-use at the point of order. Using the principle of clean-in-place (CIP) technology used in chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities, the Oko Clean provides a comprehensive washing cycle in a minimal time period, seamlessly fitting into the coffee shop workflow. This provides the consumer with convenience and reassurance against risks such as bacterial growth.

The application of this technology to beverage containers and fast-moving consumer goods is novel and offers clear benefits to consumers and hot beverage retailers by offering a convenient solution which significantly reduces plastic waste, allowing retailers to meet incoming regulatory requirements, through using a system which is designed specifically for the workflow of supplying hot beverages in a fast-service environment.

Approach 

The applicants have established a disruptive technical and economic vision for revolutionising the beverage container market. Prototyping of the technical solution has demonstrated early indicators of feasibility, with the planned innovation project designed to establish economic feasibility. 

Green Circle Innovations is taking a unique approach to reducing plastic waste by reinventing the established hot beverage distribution chain and redesigning the hot beverage retail experience. Through facilitating a circular economy system for beverage containers, the proposed innovation eliminates several inhibiting factors of current systems for reducing plastic waste such as convenience, cost and the number of exchanges of packaging between stakeholders in the recycling ecosystem.

Why Now?

In recent years, both regulators and multinational companies have committed to significantly reducing plastic waste - the EU has announced that a range of single use plastic items will be banned from 2021, while in early 2019, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, consisting of global firms such as P&G, has committed $1 billion towards eliminating plastic waste.

Green Circle Innovations believes that 2020 presents the ideal strategic opportunity to launch a “Zero Plastic Waste” beverage distribution system. Incoming regulatory restrictions on the use of disposable plastics present an excellent incentive from stakeholders in the distribution chain to adopt the Oko Cup solution.

Technology Development

The team have created an early bench-top prototype of the Oko Cup system using 3D printed components to demonstrate the feasibility of a rapid, small scale clean-in-place technology. Using this system, a complete clean of a high viscosity hot drink from a beverage container was performed within 15 seconds.

The Oko Cup is produced using a mono-material for full recyclability at the end of life stage. The cup comprises of a base, lid and flip-top element. The removable flip-top element, which is designed for spill-free transport, reveals an opening for drinking, a second central opening for the entry of the cleaning probe.

The Oko Clean system uses state of the art technology from the pharmaceutical industry which is deployed in a targeted way to effectively and efficiently clean the cups prior to use. Using a rotating nozzle to provide a spray pattern to clean all surfaces, the system provides the most energy efficient and sustainable method for cleaning. Oko Clean relies on temperate, pressure and ultrasonic vibration aids to maximise the cleaning effectiveness of the water spray rather than using detergents, which can affect the taste of beverages.

To de-risk the technical approach, a proof of concept test using a re-usable plastic container and high viscosity beverage was designed. Higher viscosity beverages, such as hot chocolate, are more difficult to remove from the surfaces of a container, and as such provide an ideal test standard. Bench-top tests were performed using a plastic re-usable container and 3D printed prototype cleaning system. The test outcome was determined using visual inspection of the container – a further statistical analysis into the removal of bacterial cultures in the container will be performed as part of the proposed feasibility project. As illustrated in the images attached, the beverage remnants were removed from the surface of the container within 15 seconds of the cleaning cycle.

Feasibility Study Plan

The purpose of this feasibility study is to significantly de-risk the technical and economic cases for the Oko concept, through a pilot consumer study to validate the technical concept and business case, the design and manufacture of an MVP and assembling a clear regulatory report and market growth proposal.

Area
Milestone
Description
Technical
Development of MVP.
Preliminary stakeholder feedback and human factors design considerations will be used to develop a first-generation MVP.
Commercial
Consumer Attitudes Feedback and Competitive Analysis
The applicants will design and conduct a preliminary focus group to understand consumer attitudes in the primary target market in order to revise the business model and technical development pathway.
Pilot Consumer Trial
Having completed the development of an MVP the team will facilitate a consumer trial of the Oko system to validate the customer adoption hypothesis.
Business Model Development and Growth Strategy
The team will collaborate with an industry specific commercial case development company and conduct extensive validation to refine the sales growth strategy and identify key sales and product partnerships.
Regulatory and IP
Preliminary Regulatory Strategy Report
Feedback from an experienced Quality Management System (QMS) and regulatory approval specialist will be sought in order to ensure that the product meets the relevant ISO and CE Mark standards.
Filing of IP Claims Through PCT Mechanism
An IP agent will be consulted to finalise the provisional patent application which has been filed, to identify and write key patent claims and to assist the applicants in navigating the PCT filing process.


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Thank you so much for the Food Extension Initiative.