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12 Feb, 2024
11 min time to read

Meet Sparklo — a company revolutionizing waste management by harnessing the power of artificial intelligence.

At Sparklo, they firmly believe that their technology has the potential to change the world for the better. In our interview, we'll share the company's history, goals, and strategy for creating a cleaner and more sustainable future.

Maxim Kaplevich — Founder and CEO at Sparklo

— What is the fundamental difference between Sparklo and recycling projects presented on the market?

— Firstly, it's important to distinguish between recycling and collection. There are numerous plants worldwide ready to accept and process raw materials. According to economic laws, if the capacity of one plant is filled, another will open if it's profitable. The problem with the current level of waste management lies in separate collection. It's about ensuring that the raw material is collected and reaches the processing stage.

There are countries with deposit systems where a good percentage of plastic waste is collected. For example, Germany, Scandinavian countries. However, there the collection percentage is achieved by a "stick" method: first, 25 cents of deposit are taken from a person, which are then returned. At the same time, an empty bottle without a drink costs less than 25 cents. This can be compared to a bicycle rental, where you leave your ID, something more valuable than the bicycle itself.

We haven't seen successful implementations without a deposit system at the level of a working history in the world, not just an image. We, on the other hand, offer people a carrot. People are willing to recycle raw materials for some benefit. We have gamified it, with ratings, bonuses in the mobile app that can be spent on new purchases - this motivated people to recycle bottles.

What sets Sparklo apart is the level of impact. We collect thousands of tons of waste for recycling. That's a significant figure. Let's compare it to metal. Metal weighs a lot, measured in millions of tons. One plastic bottle weighs 30 grams, so in one ton, there are 30,000 bottles. Thus, we're talking about billions of bottles that we aim to collect.

Overall, in our view, there are many environmental projects in the world that address the consequence rather than the cause of an underdeveloped collection and recycling system. For example, projects aimed at cleaning the ocean or starting higher up the chain: rivers or beaches, as ocean pollution can be a consequence of river pollution. Unfortunately, tackling the symptom rather than the cause doesn't lead to results. Every six years, global production doubles. You clean it up now, but in two years, it'll be the same, just twice as much.

The cause and source of pollution are human consumption habits. That's why Sparklo doesn't address the consequence but rather the cause— the lack of infrastructure. We believe that by creating convenient infrastructure near people - near their homes, in the stores they visit, on the roads they travel - we will eventually collect all the bottles. By addressing the problem of ocean or river pollution at the root cause, rather than the consequence, we aim to change the culture of waste management.

And we see that this strategy works. For example, in our app, we have a ranking of the most active users. To currently make it to the top 1000 users in the UAE, one needs to collect over 1100 bottles, and to reach the top 100, it's over 6000 bottles. There are a lot of people like that - and this is only in one country where we have been fully operational for less than a year. We see people responding positively and hope to continue to develop and cultivate this mindset.

— You claim that your Sparklo reverse vending machines are powered by artificial intelligence. What does this mean, and is your system capable of distinguishing between different types of plastic?

— Most reverse vending machines in the world operate using barcode systems. It's the barcode in the deposit system that determines whether a user should receive a deposit refund or not. We also have the ability to recognize barcodes, but we can collect any type of bottle: with or without labels, with barcodes on the caps that regular scanners in deposit countries may not read. The Sparklo vending machine can collect any bottle and recognize it, probably faster than any other machine in the world - literally within milliseconds.

So, if a person puts something into our machine that can be recycled, it will be accepted, and the user won't face any issues. This creates a positive user experience, which ultimately sets our service apart. It's convenient and people enjoy using it.

— You say that your mission is not only to collect trash but also to educate and entertain people. Let's break it down: how do you organize education, what resources do you have for this, who is responsible for it, and what do you see as the main problem with educational approaches in the waste management sphere? The same questions apply to entertainment.

— Let's start with terminology. There is trash and there are waste materials. Trash is what cannot be recycled, and we work with what shouldn't become trash, with waste materials.

Let's talk about education. You can build thousands of factories, but ordinary people may not know anything about them or about the waste situation. A reverse vending machine is the face of waste management. It's the moment when a person sees others returning bottles, when they read the messages we write on the machine, when they see what happens to the bottles after collection on our information screens or on our social networks - that's education.

We show and tell people that the world is not very efficient in terms of waste management right now, and it can be improved. Sparklo provides that initial impulse, sparking interest. Igniting interest in a person is the most important thing. Then they start to study the issue themselves, read something, learn. Perhaps they start to take other environmentally friendly actions - for example, sorting other types of waste. They start to share on social networks, with their relatives and friends. (For example, we place reverse vending machines in schools and colleges to be closer to the youngest audience). This raises the overall level of waste management culture.

— You have launched in several very different markets in the Middle East and Central Asia. What is the fundamental difference in waste infrastructure in the UAE?

— The country is relatively young. For example, in Egypt, there is a whole caste of people who have been managing Cairo (a huge metropolis) in terms of waste for 90 years. In the UAE, everything is new, with a large number of immigrants and people with vastly different backgrounds. Some had waste management systems in their home countries, while others did not.

Our goal is to effectively communicate the importance of waste separation to a variety of audiences, taking into account different cultural and religious aspects.

In the UAE, this multiculturalism has a positive effect: people are open, they see others recycling, and they start to become interested themselves. And in the UAE, we see very good results.

Moreover, since sustainability is one of the main priorities on the agenda of both the president and the emir of each emirate, people are very happy when they have the opportunity to follow it. People are actually better than they are often thought of. They look forward to such projects and are excited about them, welcoming the opportunity to lead an eco-friendly lifestyle.

— In Dubai, there is quite a strong infrastructure for calling secondary waste collection directly from homes. Don't you think this approach fits better with the city's image? You have to fundamentally change the approach to waste.

— Firstly, many homes have trash chutes, which are one of the main enemies of ecology. They undermine any idea of ​​separate collection. If you can just step out in slippers and throw away all your waste, it's hard to combat that.

In Dubai, there is a history of direct home waste collection, which could be implemented at the community level, but there are many drawbacks to such an approach. For example, in terms of the economy and the ecology of the entire process. If a vehicle with an internal combustion engine specifically comes to collect your 50 bottles, you can calculate the CO2 emissions you're spending on this logistics. It may turn out that the volume of emissions negates the benefits of keeping those 50 bottles from ending up in a landfill, river, or beach.

In this situation, Sparklo is much more effective because we consolidate traffic in one location where people voluntarily bring their bottles instead of calling for a home pickup. Additionally, we see that environmental motivation isn't the most effective on a societal scale. People still need some sort of incentive before or alongside increasing environmental motivation. Today, almost anyone who hasn't previously thought about sustainability, recycling, etc., will ask, "What will I get for these 30 bottles I'm returning?"

— You reported on the composition of Sparklo  reverse vending machines in MENA countries six months ago. How many are there currently specifically in the UAE, and what are the plans for expanding the network?

— I wouldn't speak about the current number because we are growing very rapidly and installing dozens of Sparklo machines per week. Our plans for the first half of the year include 1000 Sparklo reverse vending machines in MENA countries, with over 500 of them intended for the UAE. In our overall plans, of course, there are thousands of new Sparklo machines, and the ultimate goal is to collect all bottles wherever we are present. We believe that in the UAE, we should install no fewer than 5000 Sparklo reverse vending machines to achieve this goal.

— What's the status of communication with the government in Dubai?

— Let's talk about the UAE as a whole because there are plans at both the state and emirate levels. These often include mega-goals such as net zero emissions, percentage of waste recycled, and so on. Companies operating in these territories don't see these goals as mere formal declarations. They understand that this is the state's policy direction, and companies must also make efforts to achieve it.

We communicate with government bodies and see significant support, particularly at the municipal level. We have launched a project with the Dubai Municipality. Such support is crucial not only for the project's success but also for its image and positioning in the territory. When a minister or municipality director returns a bottle at a Sparklo reverse vending machine, it sends a powerful signal to everyone that the project has support and needs attention. Therefore, we are very positive and believe that our goals resonate with official representatives of government bodies.

— You do not disclose anywhere the list of your partners where bonus points can be spent. Who are you currently partnering with? What's the current statistics on points usage? Who's the most popular?

— Naturally, we do disclose statistics. To redeem bonuses, users must see a list of partners. In our app, there's a unique set of partners in each country, totaling over 200 partners overall. These include major fashion brands, delivery services, stores, cafes, restaurants, and more. We also have charitable options: bonuses can be donated to good causes, such as tree planting - a project we implemented in the UAE. Currently, we process tens of thousands of bonus conversions per month. The most popular services are those used frequently in everyday life. For instance, if we offer a discount on a mattress that someone buys once every three years, it's unlikely to be the most popular offer. The most popular ones are those used daily: delivery services, stores offering everyday goods, coffee, or entertainment, such as movie tickets.

— It is obvious that overconsumption is the main cause of the increase in plastic waste worldwide. Do you not see a contradiction in the fact that your strategy temporarily encourages people to handle waste carefully while also encouraging consumption?

— In general, recycling is a component of the principle of the 3Rs or 9Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle. We do not incentivize people to buy plastic bottles. We provide infrastructure to help people not to discard a bottle once it's purchased but to send it for recycling instead. This way, they don't have to feel guilty about throwing away a bottle.

Eliminating primary consumption or replacing all single-use packaging with reusable alternatives is difficult. Perhaps we can work more effectively where there is an opportunity to transition to other consumption scenarios. For example, in restaurants, we eat from reusable tableware. We believe that coffee consumption can be done using reusable cups.

But as a society, we cannot simply say, "From now on, we don't use anything from single-use bottles." Yes, there are other types of packaging, such as glass or Tetra Pak, but overall, these are all waste that also needs to be dealt with.

If we consider the B2B market, many hotels have switched to reusable water bottles, which they provide instead of plastic ones. This is an excellent solution that aligns with their business processes: bottles are filled with water and delivered to the customer.

The situation is more complex in the B2C market. If there is an opportunity to move away from single-use bottles of regular water - for example, by purchasing reusable ones or installing a filter at home - then that is the right decision. But there are some beverages for which this is not an option. For example, if you enjoy soda, it is already sold in bottles, and there's no alternative way to obtain it. Should we then ban soda? Do we want to live in a world where all products in single-use packaging are banned? At present, we don't see a solution that allows everyone, for example, to have Coca-Cola in a reusable bottle. Therefore, our goal is to collect used bottles. They will be returned, recycled, and come back as a new product into our world.

— Currently, you are dealing with plastic and aluminum. Obviously, this is a significant but not absolute market for recycling. Are there no plans to expand into paper or cotton?

— We are primarily focused on waste collection rather than recycling. However, we do consider other types of waste, understanding that the ultimate goal is to provide a convenient solution for sorting all types of consumed waste. We are addressing this issue and planning future projects involving waste adjacent to plastics.

— In addition to simple PET plastic, the world faces the problem of other types of plastic - HDPE (high-density polyethylene - cosmetic packaging, bottles for shampoo, etc.), LDPE (plastic bags), cigarette butts, eventually. You set ambitious goals, but at the same time, you deal with a relatively small part of the market.

— Sparklo's reverse vending machines can collect HDPE, which includes bottles for household chemicals, shampoos, and the like. We accept this type of plastic locally, in places where there are recyclers willing to work with such materials.

Plastic bags are a different story. There are already about 130 countries that have banned or restricted free plastic bags or plastic bags altogether. This includes individual emirates, with Dubai joining them from January 1st. There are two African countries, Rwanda and Zambia, bordering each other. In Rwanda, bags are banned, in Zambia - they are not. And the difference is clearly visible at the border: on one side - clean forests, on the other - a real plastic world.

We are not saying that the reverse vending machine is a cure for all diseases. Our goal is to create infrastructure or solutions for waste that can and should be recycled. Our market is solutions at the intersection of technology and ecology for the planet, which lead to some significant impact on changing consumption culture.