Half of the global plastic waste is from packaging. Since only 9% of plastic is recycled, our landfills are overflowing and our ecosystems are being damaged. Retailers can no longer ignore the demands of a quickly growing market of environmentally-conscious consumers. To tackle this problem, dY/dX partnered with Smollan and Nude Foods to test a new smart dispenser which could change the future of retail by removing the need for plastic packaging altogether. Nevo Hadas, a dY/dX partner, spoke on Africa Midday on Channel Africa to explain how the concept was born and why it is important.
For the entire month of July, people all over the world took part in ‘Plastic Free July’ – a global challenge to reduce personal consumption of single-use plastic. In line with the growing demand for more environmentally-conscious retail, dY/dX, a digital transformation practice in South Africa, partnered with Nude Food, South Africa’s zero-waste retailer, to create a solution which would address the issue of single-use plastic packaging in the form of digitally-operated smart dispensers. Nevo Hadas, partner at dY/dX, now joins us to further discuss this. Let’s start with what single-use plastic is and how it impacts the environment.
Single-use plastic is used in packaging for foodstuffs or cleaning materials. It’s generally plastic that cannot be recycled and is not easily disposed of. There has been a massive increase in single-use plastics over the last few years mainly because as consumer affordability decreases, manufacturers have been trying to get their products into smaller packaging sizes to make it more affordable. This means that there is more packaging being produced than ever before. The challenge is that a lot of this non-recyclable plastic ends up in landfills, oceans, rivers and all our ecosystems.
How did dY/dX go about finding a solution to this plastic waste problem?
So the project we did started out by looking at the informal sector. With our client, Smollan, we looked at how we could change the behaviours and social impacts in informal retail – from spaza shops to people who sell items on the side of the road. One of the things we realized was that the solution to reducing plastic packaging wasn’t to make it more recyclable but to actually eradicate it.
Following a design-thinking process, we tried to understand what it was that consumers are looking for in those markets. From the research and the interviews we did, we could see that affordability was a key component from those customers. So we asked, what if we could create a smart dispenser that dealt with a lot of the challenges that people in that value system face?
If we look at it from a brand perspective, what they’re really worried about is that their product is presented well – that’s why they like the packaging. It helps them to identify themselves, for example, Tastic Rice. It also helps them understand how much volume they’re selling into the market. From a consumer’s perspective, when they buy a bag of Tastic Rice, it helps because they know what they’re getting. From a retailer’s perspective, they want to have products that are affordable enough for their clients so they’re looking for a range of sizes and prices of Tastic Rice.
By moving towards a smart dispenser, we get rid of that plastic packaging completely. The consumer can come with their own container or paper bag and they can choose how much they want to buy. So, for example, if they want to buy 5 Rand’s worth of rice. The machine automatically calculates how much rice that is and keeps the rice fresh in an air-tight environment. So to reduce the impact of plastic, we eradicated the use of plastic as much as possible. In doing that, we are able to rethink pricing and affordability for a lot of products in that market.
People are becoming more aware of the environment and the need to find sustainable solutions. Is environmentally-conscious retail something that we are going to see more of?
I think it’s a definite trend. We’ve done a few of these prototypes in different kinds of environments. What was interesting for us when we were doing the research is the different needs and levels of awareness. In the spaza shop or informal environment – it’s driven more by price than packaging. There’s a stronger need for low-cost items. There is a growing awareness of the importance of recycling because people can see the trash around them and service delivery doesn’t always deal with waste effectively.
If you’re moving into the upper end of the market, into the formal market, there is an emergence of package-free retailers which have no packaging at all. They use dispensers. The latest prototype we built was actually based in one of those shops. If you look at how much growth there is in that sector, not just in South Africa but globally, you can see that it is a massive trend and all retailers are looking at it. I think it makes financial sense for manufacturers and retailers to cut out all this plastic which no one really wants. From a consumer point of view, I think it simplifies their lives and helps them to know that they are not damaging the earth with their consumption.
The smart dispenser looks after the environment on a macro-level. How can we start implementing it in our daily lives so that each one of us can help make a difference to the environment beyond ‘Plastic Free July’?
It’s the way that we choose to purchase and consume. It’s a tricky thing, depending on where you are in the market because there aren’t necessarily options for everyone. For example, in Cape Town, there are shops like Nude Foods, which we partnered with to test the latest prototype, who are purely focused on this type of thing. You can go there with your own containers and fill them up and that’s one way to reduce your impact. Another way is to buy in bulk because then you’re purchasing fewer packets. A third option, which I think is really relevant, is eco-bricks. You take an old plastic bottle, like a milk bottle, and instead of throwing your plastic packaging away, you put them into that bottle. You cram the bottle full of plastic packaging and then the bricks are used for building or ecologically-friendly construction. It also reduces the space required in landfills which is also really critical.