Waste management solution to up-cycle everyday unused items

Published on 2022-05-27

Startup Story

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Tommaso Troiani, Co-Founder at Byewaste, showed us how easy it is to recycle unused items that citizens normally do not know where to throw away.


Byewaste can be defined as a multi-sided platform which connects citizens - people like you and me who have no idea where to dispose of many of the objects they have in their houses like books, toys, e-waste and clothing - with the most sustainable destination, for example, second-hand stores, companies are going to repair or to recycle these objects. 

We started to think about Byewaste once we used to work for the University of Delft in the Netherlands: I and my co-founder were working together on a project which aim to recover metals from the bottom ashes.

For the people that don't know, bottom ashes are whatever remains after you burn the waste. Inside these trash bins, we found out there were many metals and we start to understand why: because people have no idea where else to throw away their charger, their phones, whatever.
People just put it inside the normal trash bin and this is a huge problem. 

We start to ask ourselves if we want to make a better machine to recover more metals, or do we want to go to the source of the problem? So this is why we want to make Byewaste and that's why we wanted to make it as convenient as possible for normal people like you or me.

How Byewaste works

Byewaste is a solution which has two layers. 

First of all, there is a softer layer: it consists of an app for citizens where they can find the most items we are collecting and where they can book their door to door pickup, which is as easy as when people order their food online.

On the other hand, the solution is still a social part that helps drivers or pickers - which are managed by us or by our partners - to reach these households. Also for this part, we used to call Byewaste a sort of Glovo for the circular economy. 

Then we have a more physical part, which consists of moving and sorting these items.

Currently, we work with our partners and we use their facilities to do this sorting operation to classify and move these different items we collect into different value streams. But later in the future, we are going to build our infrastructure so then add even more technologies or sophistication, especially with regard to AI and computer vision, to be able to classify on a minute to minute base, what is going to be collected.

This is important also for a sustainability aspect because the moment we start to know the number of phones, t-shirts, or books, which they've been collected in a certain city, you can understand what is the stock of this material in a certain community and what is the CO2 you are managing to save, thanks to the fact that these items they're not going to be in a landfill or incinerated, but they rather be recovered.

Also, they can be reused - and this is the most CO2 saving because you don't apply any other process on it - or they could be repaired or they're going to be recycled

So the moment we start to know what is going to be collected with an extreme level of precision, we can understand what is the CO2 impact we have managed to save.

We are already quite sustainable because we are based on the number of tonnes we are helping the municipality city hall to save from normal landfill procedures. That tonnes, without the help of Byewaste, there we'll simply landfill or, in the Netherlands, incinerated, creating an enormous amount of CO2 emission.

Byewaste's solution for low-frequency waste objects

Currently, the Byewaste collection, in the city where we are active, has four main categories, which are clothing textiles, e-waste, books and toys. We are already adding other materials such as mugs or small objects, which are used in the house or the same cities and also, we're going to collect beds and mattresses. 

For the softer perspective, is it just adding another bottom in our app, and this is quite convenient. But we are driven by the fact that we are not going to collect items or waste such as food or plastic waste that have a significant collection frequency. People have to throw away food waste every week or every day while the object we want to focus on is usually very hard to understand where they should go.

The goal is actually to cut all these problems and to offer the user the simplest solution, by trying to combine objects, whichever low frequency of disposal, for example, you throw away e-waste every year, you throw away your textiles every six months, you want to reuse your books every five years or your toys in case you have a family with young kids quite frequently.

The goal is to combine these low-frequency objects into one single solution

byewaste application visuals

The best partner for up-cycle

We are continuing to expand our network of partners, but so far we are in collaboration with a big second-hand store chain in the Netherlands, which has about 25 stores located all over the country.

Those are the people who are doing the first sorting based on quality: once the items are collected and delivered to their facilities, they do an assertion based on quality, which means that anything that can be reused they keep it.
Anything that is broken or no longer commercially usable, such as a very old television set, goes to the other partners who are recyclers: experts in different waste chains. 

Now we are also building our network of partners and we are going to include more companies who can upcycle these objects.

We have contact with a company in the Netherlands which can resell books and they're capable of understanding if a book has a market value just by scanning the barcodes. The goal is to work with them to scan all our books’ barcodes and then to give it to this company able to resell them.

On the other hand, we are also building collaboration with a German company they're able to cut the phone screen in a cheaper and faster way thanks to an advanced technology they've developed, which consists of lasers. In that way, we can recover valuable chips and cameras and pieces inside the phone, even when the phone is broken.

This aims to up-cycle and try to move the sustainability aspect above just recycling, which very often consists in just crashing and trying to recover the metal through some magnets.

So these companies can do something better and those are the partners we want to be in a relationship with. 

Byewaste box example

Why Byewaste's target audience is mainly citizens

So far we are targeting citizens because we see value in being so close with them, our consumers. Thanks to this proximity, we can make partnerships also with companies which usually do not speak often with the waste collectors. This creates a real circular economy because you can connect producers directly with the consumers and then be able to have these reverse logistics. 

The moment you buy an iPhone, ideally you should send it back to Apple or through Byewaste. This is the vision. That's why we want to stay focused on citizens.

In Rotterdam, in a couple of weeks, we already are building a network of coworking spaces and other offices and to them, we are going to rent our bins, which are going to be developed by a collective of designers and artists.

The idea is to try to make the trash bin something nice, ideally a piece of art which instead of being hidden in the corner behind the printing machine, will be a bit more visible and this will help the workers to use it as a bin, so to give us their items. But also for us will be a branding opportunity because we start to promote, to increase awareness of sustainability through art and beauty. 

The Byewaste benefits offered to its stakeholders

We have three main stakeholders, the most important ones are the citizens because we are designing a solution to make their disposal, reusing and recycling easier than it's now. 

Then we have these partners we're going to recycle, reuse and upcycle the objects we collect.

We also offer this solution to the city halls, to the municipalities, which is very often an important stakeholder for Byewaste for two reasons: working with the cities helps to build trust in our service, which is often necessary when a new service is promoted for waste management because citizens don't know and they want to know where the items they're going to go. The fact that we work together with the city helps from day one to build the trust needed to give us these objects. 

The second reason is that the cities help us to promote our service to their citizens through PR campaigns, newspaper articles and this is multiple beneficial. 
Byewaste is a benefit of these press releases, but it's also very often useful for the city hall, which thanks to this service, their manners to promote in all their sustainability and their manners to express to their citizens how committed they are to these new topics.

And also very important, we help the city to reach their targets because the cities need to comply with a certain level of recycling for certain items and our service directly helps to increase those percentages. 

Those are the main values we offer to the city and gain also something very important, we are helping the city to reduce their cost, to save money on the waste management because to the fact that tonnes we are collecting don't go to the normal process of landfilling or to incinerate where the city pays money on this. We help them avoid going to landfills, so it is a clear saving for municipalities. 

So the city definitely benefits from Byeways.

Same as the partners: these recyclers have access to highly sorted material which comes in very good quality. The modern problem of the circular economy industry of recycling is the fact that it is still too expensive to sort items once they've been collected together. 

That's why in the past, western countries used to ship their e-waste to China because the labour costs were cheap enough to guarantee that this sorting, when being made by people instead of the machine, stayed at a competitive price. But now, China has stopped receiving our waste and we need to deal with it in Europe where the cost of labour is still very high, and so it's not going to be efficient. 

That's why thanks to our solution, the recyclers are getting already sorted items, which helps them to focus only on the recycling procedure they are experts on, textile instead of electronic waste.

And for the citizens who ultimately offer a solution, which is very convenient. The people there are very happy to use Byewaste because we help them to save money to save time. They don't have to use their car to go to the second-hand shop and try to deal with them, this is convenient.
We are going to offer them some Byewaste credits which can be converted into discounts or other benefits that can get through the ethical partners we are building nowadays. 

Byewaste's future plans

We started here in the Netherlands only because my co-founder and I were working for the University of Delft. It was a coincidence, let's say, but we also found that Dutch cities are very proactive and responsive to what we offer, so it ended up being a good choice.

We don't see Byewaste just as a nice initiative which happened just in Rotterdam or somewhere else in the Netherlands: we see Byewaste as a European case.
I'm saying European because the whole European countries have to deal with the same European directives.

For example, before we mentioned the textile sector. Europe is moving quite forward in trying to make circularity for the textile industry. Indeed, the textile industry is going through huge transitions and transformations over the next 3 to 5 years. Consumers start to demand sustainability in the products that they buy. So we see a huge opportunity in the whole country and the opportunity to offer value to the cities and in the north county.

We had already launched a pilot in Lisbon, Portugal, in a part of the city which covers 20,000 citizens. We started from there because I wanted to test how different southern Europe, like Portugal, Spain or Italy, is compared to northern Europe like the Netherlands, Denmark and Nordics. 

So far in my conversation with the municipality, I haven't noticed any difference. The city of Lisbon is as committed as the city of Rotterdam to making this happen. In a couple of weeks, I will be able to say whether the Portuguese have engaged with the same discipline and proactivity as in Rotterdam, but I think so. 

From my conversation with the market researcher we've done, we haven't seen any difference between what is happening in Rotterdam to what will happen in Lisbona, and this gave me hope to expand the service as fast as possible to Italy, that is the country where I come from.

Citizen behaviour, collection operations, and sorting: the Byewaste’ main challenges

I believe as an entrepreneur that you need to deal with challenges that are part of your job. So I don't see them as an obstacle either considering that as a part of the journey. The way we approach these challenges is to try to split them into smaller challenges, which we can solve at that particular stage. 

We found three main challenges. 

The first one, the one that we have been focusing on so far, it's connected with the app, the software development and the behavioural tricks of the user or the citizen, and how they are engaging with our solution.
Because of this, we work with the behavioural department at Rotterdam School of Management. We start applying behavioural economy tricks into these services, nothing too fancy, just offering people some default options where they can choose their day of collection, rather than telling them they could choose any day.
Indeed, we found that the default option "Byewaste passes on Saturday morning" is more effective than just offering them "hey, tell us any day where we'll pass by" because people don't want to think too much on these topics and it is already within their mental models to expect somebody passes on Saturday morning.
So we start to develop these tricks and this knowledge in this regard.

This is the first challenge which has been solved: our current users use the service very often, and we have a retention rate of 70%, which means 7 people out of 10 keep using the service twice, three more times. 

The second challenge, which is what we are facing right now, is: how can we scale the operational part? How can we scale the collection and the logistics just to try to remain sustainable?
In this, we are working with the collection with the second-hand store which is using their trucks on our drivers' app so they use our path to collect. 
We are also testing our cargo bicycles, which might be operated by social workers or people distant from the job market and could be a way to give them a new job and train them. 

And the third and ultimate challenge is connected with sorting.
The objects come already pre-sorted by the citizens because they put the different items into different bags. And this is a huge saving because I like to say it is like an Ikea just the reverse. When you go to Ikea, you pay less because you're doing the assembly part yourself. Same with Byewaste: we are helping the recyclers to obtain sorted items because the citizens are doing part of the sorting themself. But, this is not enough, especially if we want to expand the networks and by adding more partners who are very good at recycling or making a new life to specific bonus streams, we need to be even more sophisticated in the sorting operation.

That's why the next challenge will be to set up our sorting location facility. I start to play with computer vision and AI to start to assess, start to catalogue, to start to count these items, because then they will make it possible to sort only cables, only I-pads, only phones, and only white t-shirts into different waste streams. This will give the recyclers a huge advantage because they can then become experts in recycling only white t-shirts or only iPhones, only iPad. This is way better than just receiving buckets full of textiles with Jackets, underwear or t-shirts, or buckets full of e-waste with cables, lamps, a coffee machine and iPads inside. 

So three challenges, the softer part connected with the behaviour of citizens, the operation collected to how can we optimize the logistics and the sorting part how can we offer to our partners the highest possible waste streams we can manage to. 

The power of small habits to change self-perception

Some very famous behavioural economists often say "you need to help people to do the right thing for the wrong reason". 

This is what we are trying to do: we asked them to put the object into different buckets and then press a button, nothing more.

I also believe that sustainability is similar to a muscle that you need to train: you go to the gym and you don't start with the biggest weight, you start with the lowest weight and you'll start to repeat the actions. Same as sustainability. 
That's why the solution we gave is the simplest. 

A designer from Stanford named BJ Fogg, in a book called "Tiny habits” said that you need to start small: you need to have these new habits - like using Byewaste - into something which is already an old habit.
The moment you start to perform these tiny habits with a certain frequency, you also start to look at yourself differently: you become that person who is doing circular economy solutions or is being sustainable.
This is something that maybe you've never expected to be, but you just become thanks to the power of tiny habits. 

The professor also says that it's important to celebrate every time you manage to do new tiny habits with some celebrations. 
So that's why we are offering people some discounts, we want to organise some community events in the neighbourhood to let them feel part of something. 

This is ultimately a way to increase the awareness because maybe you become a Byewaste user and then, after all, you start to consider yourself to use your car less often, or you start to consider eating less meat.

Of course, this is a bit of a long shot, but you have to think about this the same as with the gym: you start with a small weight and then of a sudden you'll start to lift more weights and you'll start to follow a better lifestyle.

About the author

Tommaso Troiani

Co-founder at Byewaste