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14 Apr, 2024
9 min time to read

Sparklo is a global cleantech company producing and operating innovative solutions for plastic and aluminium recycling  - Reverse Vending Machines (or Sparklomats). And Max Kaplevich is the founder and CEO of Sparklo.

Durov's Code has a unique opportunity to interview him and learn more about the company, accomplishments and goals.

Max Kaplevich, CEO & Founder at Sparklo

Sparklo is creating a global infrastructure that eliminates cause of plastic and aluminum pollution: collecting bottles and cans for recycling before they become waste, hence becoming an essential part of circular economy.

What is the fundamental difference between Sparklo and recycling projects already present in the market?

First of all, it's essential to differentiate between recycling and waste collection. There are numerous factories worldwide ready to accept and process raw materials. Talking about recycling, there's a basic principle in economics that comes into play: if one recycling facility hits its capacity but is still profitable, another one will likely open up. And the real challenge we're tackling in waste management today lies in the process of separate collection – ensuring that raw materials are collected and transported to the processing stage. We’re establishing the collection infrastructure, without being directly involved in recycling.

Nowadays, certain countries (Germany or the Scandinavian countries, for example) implement a deposit system managing to collect a decent chunk of plastic waste. What motivates people to return the bottle is the significant deposit fee included in the price of the product, though the value of the empty bottle doesn’t quite match with the fee. It's like renting a bike and having to leave your ID as a deposit – ID's worth more than the bike itself.

Our approach is a bit different — we focus on positive motivation. People are more willing to recycle when there's something in it for them. Our users earn rewards that they can then use for future purchases, which motivates them to return bottles.

Sparklo’s results show that such an approach really works. Take our core market for example: since the start of our operations in the UAE, we have installed 170 Sparklomats, through which 14.5 million bottles and cans were collected, equivalent to saving more than 1.400 tons of CO2 emissions.

Also, in general, we believe that many environmental initiatives globally tend to deal mainly with the consequence of an underdeveloped collection and recycling system rather than with the cause.

Take, for example, projects that focus on cleaning up oceans, rivers or beaches. While these efforts are commendable, they don’t deal with the cause. You clean it now, but in a few years the situation will be the same, as plastic keeps coming to the ocean.

The reason and origin of pollution lie with humans at the moment of consumption. That's why Sparklo is tackling the root cause – the lack of proper infrastructure. We believe that by setting up easy-to-use facilities right where people live, shop, and travel, we'll eventually collect all the bottles. That's how we tackle global plastic pollution at its source.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, our results in the UAE are pretty impressive, and here’s another example showing that this strategy works. Right now, around 110,000 people are registered in our app — and that's just users from the UAE. Each day, Sparklo collects more than 125,000 bottles and cans for recycling. We see people responding, and we hope to develop and nurture this further.

You claim that your reverse vending machines are AI-powered. How does it work, and is your system capable of distinguishing between different types of plastic?

Most RVMs worldwide use barcode systems to determine whether the user gets a refund. Our system, however, goes further, accepting any type of bottle: whether it’s labeled, unlabeled, with barcodes or not. And we probably do it faster than any other system out there – literally within a few milliseconds.

So, if someone drops off a bottle that can be recycled, Sparklomat will accept it, no doubt. The AI system creates a smooth user experience, setting us apart.

You say your mission isn't just about collecting garbage but also about educating and entertaining people. Let's break it down: how do you organize education, what resources do you have for it, who's involved, and what do you see as the main problem with educational approaches in waste management? The same questions apply to entertainment.

Let's set the terms first. There's garbage and then there's waste. Garbage is all the stuff that can't be recycled. We, on the other hand, deal with things that shouldn’t end up in landfills.

Now, onto education. You see, for example, constructing countless recycling factories is an amazing effort, but it's equally crucial that the general public is aware of these initiatives and the waste situation as a whole. Our vending machines bridge this gap, serving as the face of waste management. The moment when an individual witnesses others recycling bottles, reads the messages displayed on the Sparklomat, or discovers what happens to the bottles post-collection on our information screens and social media is pivotal. We believe this is the moment of true environmental education.

We believe that the current state of waste management worldwide could be improved. Getting someone interested is the key, and Sparklo provides that initial push. Then people embark on their journey of exploration. Perhaps they begin to undertake other eco-friendly actions, like sorting other types of waste. They start sharing their knowledge on social media platforms, with their relatives and friends. That's how we raise the overall level of waste management awareness.

You've reached several vastly different markets in the Middle East and Central Asia. What are the fundamental differences in waste infrastructure in the UAE?

The country is relatively young. For instance, in Egypt, there's an entire community of people who have been handling Cairo's waste for over 90 years. The UAE is different, it’s a country with a significant immigrant population, and people coming from diverse backgrounds. Some had waste management systems back home, while others did not.

Our goal is to effectively communicate the importance of waste separation to a highly diverse audience, taking into account various cultural and religious aspects.

In the UAE, we notice that multiculturalism has a positive effect: people are open-minded, they see others recycling, and become interested in it themselves.

Moreover, since sustainability is one of the main priorities of the government, people are delighted to have the opportunity to follow it. People await such projects and are pleased to see them implemented, embracing the chance to lead an eco-friendly lifestyle.

In Dubai, there's quite a robust infrastructure for doorstep waste collection. Don’t you think such an approach aligns better with the city's image? Do you fear that you'll need to fundamentally change people’s attitude toward waste?

Many buildings have garbage chutes, which undermines any notion of waste separation. If you can simply step out in slippers and dispose of all waste, the motivation to collect items for recycling drops significantly.

In Dubai, they've tried the doorstep collection, which sounds good in theory, but isn’t very efficient from an economic or environmental standpoint. If a truck comes to pick up 50 bottles, you've got to consider the emissions from that journey, which might outweigh the benefits of recycling.

Sparklo's way of operation is more efficient, because people can drop off their bottles on their own at convenient locations, for example, at the supermarket they visit regularly. This eliminates the need for collecting items from every household, which would add to traffic congestion and CO2 emissions. Plus, just being eco-friendly isn't always enough to motivate people. As I’ve said, they need a bit of extra incentive. And nowadays, almost everyone who hasn't thought much about recycling is asking, “What do I get for returning these 30 bottles?”.

How many Sparklomats are currently installed in the UAE, and what are the expansion plans?

We're growing rapidly, with around 170 Sparklomats installed in the UAE. Our plans for the first half of the year include installing 1000 machines in the MENA countries, with over 500 of them in the UAE. In the broader scheme, our global goal is to collect all plastic bottles and aluminum cans wherever we operate. We believe that in the UAE alone, we should install no fewer than 5000 machines to achieve this goal.

How is the ongoing communication with the government in Dubai progressing?

I suggest we talk about the UAE as a whole because there are both local and state initiatives. These are often global goals like achieving net zero emissions or increasing the percentage of waste recycled. Companies operating in these territories don't see these goals as mere formality. They understand this is the state's policy direction, and companies must make efforts to contribute to its realization.

We communicate with government authorities and meet significant support, particularly at the municipal level. We've launched a project with the Dubai Municipality, whose support is crucial. The fact that a minister or a municipality director is using our Sparklomat draws attention to the project, and underscores the commitment of the government to ensure progress towards sustainability. Therefore, we are very positive about our goals, and believe they resonate with official representatives of government bodies.

You don't disclose the full list of your partners, with whom users can spend the bonus points. Who are you currently partnering with? What are the current usage statistics for the points? What promotion is the most popular?

Naturally, we provide transparent statistics. Our partners are listed in the Sparklo app, so that users can choose how to spend their points. We have over 200 partners globally, including charitable organizations like tree planting – the initiative we've successfully implemented in the UAE. Currently, we process tens of thousands of bonus conversions per month. The most popular services are those that are used most frequently in everyday life, such as delivery services, everyday goods stores, or entertainment, for example, movie tickets.

It’s obvious that overconsumption is the main driver behind the rise in plastic waste worldwide. Did it cross your mind that there’s a contradiction between the fact that your strategy is encouraging people to be mindful of waste while also promoting consumption?

We see it differently. We don't incentivize people to buy plastic bottles. Instead, we provide infrastructure to help people collect what’s been already used and alleviate their guilt. By returning the bottle to the production cycle, an individual makes sure that plastic will be recycled into new materials, ensuring precise reuse.

Eliminating primary consumption or replacing all single-use packaging with reusable alternatives is important, yet challenging. Yes, the right decision is to move away from single-use bottles of water, for example, by purchasing a reusable one or installing a home filter. But sometimes it’s just not possible. If you enjoy soda, you’ll buy it the way it is, which is often a plastic bottle without any alternatives. Should we then ban soda? Do we want to live in a world where all products in single-use packaging are prohibited?

Currently, we don't see a solution that enables everyone to have, let’s say, Coca-Cola in a reusable bottle. That's why our goal is to collect what's been used. It will be returned for recycling, transformed into new products, and reintroduced into the world.

Currently, you're dealing with plastic and aluminum. Obviously, this is a significant but not exhaustive market for recycling. Are there any plans to expand into paper or cotton?

Our main goal is to implement comprehensive solutions reaching the core sustainable concept of 3R – reduce, reuse, recycle. In line with this vision, we're exploring initiatives aimed at preventing the waste & recycling it.

How does your company address the issue of other types of plastics besides PET, such as HDPE (high-density polyethylene – used in cosmetic packaging, shampoo bottles, etc.), LDPE (plastic bags), and cigarette butts? Do you have any plans to address this problem in the future?

Sparklomats can collect HDPE: shampoo bottles, for example. We accept this type of plastic in places where recyclers are willing to work with these materials.

It’s a little different with plastic bags. There are already around 130 countries that have banned or restricted plastic bags usage. This includes individual emirates, with Dubai joining them from January 1st. There’re examples showing that the initiative is working. Look at the case of Rwanda and Zambia in Africa, for instance. The former has banned plastic bags, while the latter has not. The difference is stark at the border: pristine forests on the one side, and loads of plastic – on the other.

We're not claiming that Sparklo offers a cure-all solution. Our goal is to create infrastructure for waste that can and should be recycled. We’re aimed at creating solutions at the intersection of technology and ecology, leading to some significant changes in consumption culture.