In circular economy terms, reverse logistics involves the collection of goods, transportation to a given location, and sorting prior to remanufacturing, refurbishing, reusing or recycling or failing that, disposal.
Today, we are joined by Paul McSweeney, who is the Founder and CEO of the ZeroNet, an app that allows households to simply and quickly donate unwanted items and have them collected right from their front door.
In this episode, Paul shares his long-story-short with us, getting to the point of having launched a pilot in Stirling, Scotland, and an upcoming project in Brighton in the UK.
We also discuss what the platform looks like, recycling versus reuse, data recovery when it comes to e-waste, and the surprising householder enthusiasm for a collections service like this, as well as what has kept Paul motivated throughout the development and whether or not he thinks ZeroNet could encourage excess consumption.
For all this and more, make sure to tune in today!
After a 25+ career spent in the IT consulting industry, Paul has spent over 8 years working in the circular economy (CE), initially as a research project.
He was a member of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s CE100–widely viewed as the foremost global authority on the CE-for 4 years and used that time to do extensive market research on the logistical requirements of the circular economy.
Designed and led the ZeroNet development project from 2016-2019 and successfully led the first ZeroNet pilot in Stirling, Scotland following a funding support programme by Zero Waste Scotland.
“Reuse is way more useful in terms of environmental benefits than recycling. Yes, of course, it would be great to take the old toaster and kettle and divert it away from the black bin and ensure that it was, at the very least, recycled at a material level. It is more valuable and more useful environmentally to recover something for reuse ahead of recycling in the so-called waste hierarchy, where reuse is higher up.” — Paul McSweeney, @ZeroNetApp
Tune in to find out:
- Paul introduces himself and ZeroNet Services, what they do, and how it all started.
- Developing a method for removing unwanted items from householders at scale.
- Getting in touch with the Ellen McArthur Foundation and learning about the circular economy.
- The brands that Paul was lucky enough to be exposed to during the early stages of ZeroNet.
- Creating the technology – it started with a lot of rejection for Paul, in trying to obtain funding.
- A recent opportunity to deploy the project in Brighton, England, for e-waste recovery.
- Paul gives an example, in circular economy speak, of what is known as reverse logistics.
- What the platform looks like – it consists of a user app and a portal that identifies a demand.
- Recycling versus reuse – Paul explains why they focus on reuse and why it is more valuable.
- Paul explains the other service they will be offering, which is recovering data bearing.
- Reusing e-waste versus disposing of it or recycling it – can it can be recovered, used for spare parts, or redistributed?
- What Paul learned from the pilot process in Stirling, like householder enthusiasm for the idea.
- Making the service economically viable – it depends on urban density and additional services.
- Which came first, ZeroNet’s solution, or the demand for it? Paul says it’s demand-driven.
- What has kept Paul driven and motivated is simply that this is something that has to be done.
- To what extent may ZeroNet actually encourage excess consumption? Paul sees there being a positive behavioural change.
- And much more!
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“Everybody has an enormous amount of unwanted, used-once, or used-for-a-time inventory that they simply don't know what to do. There is a vast degree of confusion amongst householders as to what they need to do. What we want to try and find is a coherent, cohesive, single approach that can allow the idea of circularity, and let's call it what it is: It's about as creating a zero waste model that can scale.” — Paul McSweeney, @ZeroNetApp
Emily Swaddle 0:05
Hello, and welcome back to HappyPorch Radio. This season we are talking about the Circular Economy. In today's episode, Barry and I have been joined by Paul McSweeney, who is the founder and CEO of the ZeroNet, an app that allows households to simply and quickly donate unwanted items and have them collected. Right on that front door. Paul was very kind in sharing his long story with us. It's getting to the point of now having launched a pilot in Sterling and lots of upcoming exciting projects for the ZeroNet. And it was quite a story Barry.
Barry O'Kane 0:46
Yeah, it really was, it sounded like he had the original idea, he talked about it being 10 years ago. So one of the cool things is I used the word cooler, I think I mean, inspiring and sort of encouraging, is that when we asked him that question, he said, it's a job that must be done. So I thought that was really inspiring. So that's his kind of story of the entrepreneurial story of getting something like this off the ground. And being involved with Ellen MacArthur Foundation for C 100 and so on to get to the story of the app, or the problem that they're solving is also I think, really cool. Working on, again, another very challenging problem of joining the dots of a vital part of the circular economy, of anything in the economy in terms of reverse logistics, returning the product, for reuse for recycling, or for whatever is necessary is such a tough problem. And I think it's really inspiring what Paul was talking about.
Emily Swaddle 1:41
Yeah, what I really liked about this project is that it's kind of really practical, I understand exactly the issue that he's confronting. And also, I would use this app, I'm really keen for it to go nationwide so that I can get on it. It just feels like the solution that we all need. And there's lots of elements to it from his side in terms of the partners that he is about to collaborate with, and thinking even about data security, and all the aspects of collecting unwanted items from households. But it was really great to hear his experience of working through all these things. And getting to a point that it's now a reality. And it's growing all the time.
Barry O'Kane 2:27
Very much so. And the complexity of working with those different products, different things go to different places and have different uses. So multiple different stakeholders and partners working with that. And they talked about that. And I thought that was I suspect, probably almost the harder part of doing a platform like this. So very cool. And without any further ado, let's meet Paul,
Paul McSweeney 2:54
Good to talk to you Barry & Emily. Paul McSweeney is my name, I've been involved in the Circular Economy one way or another for many, many years now. I'm the founder of a business called Zero Bin group, ZeroNet Services, as we call it in the UK. And the business was set up primarily in order to allow us to create a whole new way of thinking about collection logistics, and just collection logistics might sound like something fairly dull and banal. Just to give you a little bit of context, a number of years ago, I was walking near my house and simultaneously I saw two things take place. And let's just say really struck a chord. On the one hand, I saw an Irish mail and a Post van that was delivering something to somebody's house. At the very same time I saw a waste truck going to a neighbouring house and collecting the black bin residual waste outside that house. And I was just very struck by the contrast between the two things. On the one hand, you had this very professional approach whereby a householder was acquiring a unit of inventory from a probably a big brand like Amazon, everything about that product was known, was tracked, it was traceable. On the other hand, then you had this fairly kind of clunky, almost amateurish, like process for removing residual waste. And it just struck me without knowing anything at this stage about Circular Economy that that all came a little bit later. But I just very briefly, I remember asking myself the question as to what would happen if you could apply the same kind of rigour on the collection side as you could on the outbound side. So what if you know, from a waste reduction perspective, you were able to professionalise that collection stream. So the idea was born, and the idea didn't go anywhere for some time. I was doing other things at the time. But I do remember that I did produce a kind of a slide deck about the idea, and I decided I'd go around and do some canvassing. And somebody said to me, I thought it'd be a little bit adventurous here as and I thought, what if you could apply that collection paradigm to a postal service? And what would their opinion be of an idea like that? So I said, let's start big. So I reached out to the Royal Mail in London. Not thinking I would get anywhere. And within a relatively short period of time, matter of days, several people came back and said, Actually, that's a really interesting idea. Can you come and talk to us. So I found myself in their headquarters in Blackfriars, in London. And I presented the model with no software, just an idea. And interestingly, they, one of their guys looked at the model. And he said, you know, what's really interesting about that is that if you could do this for the Royal Mail, at scale, at UK wide scale, it's almost inevitable that it would have an enormous impact on our profitability. And in fact, he said, that would actually, you know, that would double, triple quadruple our profitability if you could do this at scale. And I thought, Why, what exactly is the reason for that? And he said, Well, the thing about, you know, what we do, and what all national postal service companies do globally is they, they have an obligation to go to every single postcode in the land. And in the case of the Royal Mail is about 29 million, unique postcodes, 27 million households, and but they have an obligation to go there. But they are already in situ on site. And they have no way of monetising their relationship with the household or beyond the piece of mail or the package that they deliver. So if you're able to create for them, as our model is now able to do, a way of knowing what kinds of unwanted products materials are in their households. And if you're able to find create a very clever way of recovering those things at scale, then suddenly, they happen to have an extremely ready to go logistics network that can dovetail in with that demand. And even then, this is a long time. This is 2012, I still hadn't heard much about the Circular Economy. I think within a couple of months of that meeting, and I ended up having a lot of conversations with the Royal Mail and to say that we're still in discussions with various parties on a global basis to do with the postal sector. And somebody suggested to me, here in Ireland, that I should reach out and make contact with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, because they had been obviously banging this Circular Economy drum for a couple of years at that stage. And they had acquired a kind of an aura and authority about circularity, which they still very much deservedly have. And I was very lucky at the time to have been asked to become a member of their CE 100, Circular Economy 100, which is a grouping that they set up of academics, industry bodies, state authorities, local authorities. So basically, this was a very significant global talking shop and policy creation entity that was going from strength to strength. And I was lucky to have spent about four years in that body mixing with the great and the good, getting a real deep understanding of what circularity was about. And the one thing I was really struck by and they were, too is that one of the missing links to enable Circular Economy to happen at scale was the requirement for a kind of a reinvention, a reimagining of collection logistics, and as it turned out, that was just that kind of brainwave that I had had a little while earlier. So in a very long story, it's very hard to kind of summarise something like this in just a couple of short sentences. But the kinds of brands that I was exposed to, during that time, you know, Unilever, which is the world's second biggest fast moving consumer goods entity with 400 brands, and about 2 billion customers, Nespresso, of the coffee cup fame, Dell, HP, apple, and many, many more. And there was a common theme that was sort of flowing through all of the conversations with, with these companies that, you know, they needed in order for them to achieve their circular ambitions. And some of them were doing some really far out thinking, and some very innovative pilots and trials, which had the purpose of trying to establish circularity in a significant way. And many of them would say to me, Look, you know, we need you to build your things, so we can see what it looks like. I thought that would take me a couple of years, it took me more like six. And that's another long story short.
Barry O'Kane 9:07
That is amazing. I would really like to come back if we have time to talk about the CE 100 and that impact and all that there. But moving on to what you were talking about their the process of like, as you say, you have this idea has been bubbling away, and you've been kind of hearing, I guess, validation. But so when you came to the point where you say, Okay, I'm going to go, I'm going to create the app, I'm going to create the technology and try and join those dots. How did you go about that? What did you start? And what was that journey like?
Paul McSweeney 9:33
Well, I think the starting point, and the probably the difficulty and trying to think back to that time was that it's marked by an enormous amount of rejection. Because the the traditional route when you're in a startup mode is that you reach out to the venture capital community or to the the finance community in a general sense, you say, please give me a million pounds and I will give you 10% of this fantastic idea and which will make the whole thing worth 10 million, and then we maybe build something and you can flip it and sell it to somebody else in a couple of years time for 100 million. And then we'll also the way wealthy people into the sunset. That's all very well, in theory, but it doesn't quite work like that in practice. And it's probably fair to say that the whole finance community is still struggling to get its head round circularity and how circular models can be profitable. So I managed to obtain some grants from various bodies and probably the most significant one of which was in Scotland, in one of the co-members of the The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the CE 100 was Zero Waste Scotland still is, Zero Waste Scotland, which is probably the most groundbreaking government agency, possibly in the world working in the Circular Economy space. It's an absolutely amazing agency in that it is tasked with driving the move to circularity that is really starting to gather a pace now in Scotland. And they liked my model. And again, a long story short, I was successful in obtaining a fund from Zero Waste Scotland, which allowed us to build a fairly robust prototype version of our platform, which we were able to try last year in Sterling successfully. So that was a really good start, got the project off the ground. And we've been enhancing it since then. And we're still very much hopeful. And lockdown notwithstanding, I think we would be active in Scotland right now. But another opportunity arose earlier this year to deploy the platform in England. In fact, in Brighton, and right now, we're working on that project in earnest to get the project deployed with the local partners for the purposes of electronic waste recovery. So e waste, or WEE have to use the European acronym, is the bane of many people who work in the waste sector, it's a staggering waste stream, you know, represents about 50 million tonnes of inappropriately handled materials every year, a staggering amount of it, I mean, 70% of it doesn't get reprocessed in a way that would allow the materials that are recovered to come back into primary circulation, so that your new iPod or your Dell Laptop, and anything that you buy, these products, for the most part are manufactured from materials that are newly extracted from the ground, which is this is in spite of the fact that many, many brands, including the ones I mentioned, do great things to try and ensure that their post consumer products can in fact, be recovered. But the bit where it really does fall down, yet again, is the whole area of collection or to give it its proper name and Circular Economy speak, it's it's often referred to as reverse logistics. Which is the whole area of how you recover everything to do with the process of recovering from a consumer source. If you think about it, you know, if you have 1000 TV sets in a warehouse, you know, you know where they are, you can tell what they were made of, you can get a very large degree of understanding of exactly what those products are, because you know where they are. But as soon as their sold to 1000 locations, which is going to be what will happen because their TVs, suddenly that link is lost and recovering them becomes a real struggle and to recover them in a way that allows them to be appropriately disassembled at scale. That's a real challenge. So we're looking to start with electronic waste as our initial material that we want to recover. And we're lucky enough to obtain grant funding to deploy this project, which we now hope and go live in September.
Emily Swaddle 13:21
So Paul, you mentioned that you've had a pilot in Sterling with the platform. What does the platform look like as a user when I go on? What can I do with the platform? And then what's the kind of process that happens after that once things have been collected, what happens?
Paul McSweeney 13:22
So the platform consists of two apps, a user app, which is designed to allow you to register the fact that you live in a location. So Joe Bloggs can Mainstreet Northumberland. And so we've then been able to use the app to identify that a demand exists. So if this was, let's say, operating across Brighton, we would be able to see using our what we call our portal, we'll be able to see in real time that there might be 6742 collection requests for small WEE. And we know exactly where those are. So we have a geolocation for every one of those addresses. So from a user point of view, the app will be telling you, thank you for making your registration, we will be in touch to let you know when we plan to collect, we'll offer you a collection slot, for example. So the next piece is we engage with a batch of, because this is all about making the whole process of recovery very efficient, we will then engage with an appropriate group could be anything from 40 to 100 that we could perhaps do in a day with a van. And then we link that up with a driver App and the driver app that allows a driver to go from house to house and to collect exactly what was registered and capture it in a way that's very granular. So instead of having, you know a bag containing a whole bunch of cables and broken hair dryers and toasters and kettles. One of the big themes in E waste today is reuse and reuse is way more useful in terms of environmental benefits than recycling. Yes, of course, it would be great to take the old toaster and kettle and divert it away from the black bin and ensure that it was at the very least recycled at a material level. But it is more valuable and more useful environmentally, to recover something for reuse, ahead of recycling in the so called waste hierarchy where reuse is higher up. So we've got these two apps working side by side. So we've got a very kind of rich driver experience that allows this high level of granularity. Even to them, I'll give you an example of that one of the services that we'll be offering is the ability to recover, so called Data bearing WEE. Being an wanted laptop or phone. And one of the barriers to recovery in terms of people's psychological worries on this score is their legacy data. So what we're able to offer is a secure collection. And the ability to destroy the data using, you know, military grade software, if appropriate, would destroy their data, but also recover the items so that it can be reused again. And we're planning to provide people with a, a message by way of a notification once the data has been destroyed off site, to let them know, in fact that that took place. So you know, you give up this old Dell Laptop that you've been hoarding for seven years, you're not quite sure if it works anymore, but you know, that it's not necessary for you to hang on to it, you don't tend to use it again, because you've long since been superseded. But your worry is your data. So this service will allow it to be collected from your doorstep. And you get a message to say the data was destroyed. So it's kind of a, it's a What's not to like, and we're really hoping that that aspect of the service will really resonate with people.
Emily Swaddle 16:49
Hmm. Yeah, that sounds like a really valuable service. Actually, I know that it's definitely something that I've experienced. And I've been trying to get rid of the e-waste. It's thinking, Well, how do I clear this computer? Or how do I make sure that it'll secure before I get rid of it? And also, how do I make sure that once I get rid of this piece of equipment, that it's not just going to end up in a landfill or that it is going to be reused? Or if it can't be reused, it will be recycled? So I mean, first of all, I suppose the question is, do you have an idea of what percentage of the products that you collect can actually be reused? And for those that can't be reuse, what's the process then of recycling and making sure that they are being disposed off responsibly.
Paul McSweeney 17:34
So in the case of a known products, let's say an apple or Dell Laptop, that's relatively out of date. Once we are able to recover it, and it's handling at the point of collection is very important, you know, that, if you think of the traditional way of doing it, that you bring it to a household waste recycling centre, which many of these right now, are actually furloughed in the UK because of the crisis. So there's a difficulty in even going to these places, and people have a reluctance to go to them in any event. So the process is that if it can be recovered, and it's possible for it to be upgraded, data wiped and given maybe given a new operating system, because you know, you might be familiar with these light touch operating systems like Ubuntu, which can take a very old laptop that wouldn't work with, say, Windows 10. But it would work with something like Ubuntu to which is allow the machine to be used as some kind of a Chromebook type. So that's the first thing is can you keep it going without intervention? The second thing is, can you cannibalise the machine for spare parts if the parts are known because was the machine might not be working anymore, it's still possible to disassemble it and, and that's one of the things that we're planning to do with our partners who called Tech Take Back based down in Brighton and so they'll have a warehouse with the ability to do that. And so the next thing is, if a machine is still working, we're working as one of our partners on the project is Freegle, which is the biggest reuse charity website in the UK with over 2 million members. They happen to have been founded in Brighton by this amazing Australian lady called Cat Fletcher. And she and her team have an ability to take in on wanted tech from our service and to effectively to distribute it to the needy within their Freegal network in Brighton. So there's all and that by the way, we're also looking for that to potentially apply to, to household goods. So things like small domestic appliances, like the toasters and the kettles, which typically never had a second home to go to. So there's a another sort of triage process that can be applied to things like toasters and kettles, which clearly are a lot less sophisticated than an old laptop. But it's again, really preferable for those items to be retrieved if they're still working. And in many cases, you know, we do dump an old kettle because for aesthetic reasons, or for some other reason. So they can also be given a new life by going through a short test process. Now things that have clearly reached the end of their life. They go into a large skip, and then they are recycled at a material level with another mainstream brand with the capability of doing WEE recycling. So even if the worst case scenario is that the products have been diverted away from landfills, so the idea is that the council, who is one of the partners Brighton Health Council on this project, they're also looking to ensure that this avoids the real problem, which is a big problem throughout the world, not just in the UK, of having unwanted electronic waste and electrical waste discarded in the black or residual bin, which is a nightmare. And it's about the worst thing that you can do. So
Emily Swaddle 20:30
It sounds like you're working with a lot of different partners to kind of bring all of this together in terms of the full journey of a collection and pick up and reuse or recycle and assessment of these things. What have you learnt from the pilot process that happened in Sterling, that will help you as you move forward to hopefully expand into different regions?
Paul McSweeney 20:57
I think that the biggest learning was, in a surprising way, it was a householder enthusiasm for the idea. Some of that enthusiasm comes from, in fact that you could just say, human nature and an inherent sort of laziness. Not that we're saying that people were lazy in Sterling or anything like that. We're just saying that in a general sense, the current scenario if you want to offload on wanted household items. Beyond, you know, the typical weekly or bi weekly services that you would have from your council where you offload, you know, unwanted food waste, and the black bin and the recyclables like plastics. Is that it's an extremely complex and confusing landscape for most people to know what to do with so many different categories of unwanted post consumer products, whether it's a not working lawn mower, or a broken set of hedge trimmers or anything that it happens to be. And the idea was we wanted to offer a kind of a coherent, one stop shop service that could all and was based on the principle of we will come to you because we can make it economically possible to do so. And what we discovered when we did that, we were worried at the beginning that would people go to the trouble of registering separately, different categories that they actually have, because they have to engage with the app. And the feedback that we got was very interesting. And it was kind of universal, it was that people didn't say it like this. But this is clearly what they meant that if you're going to help us to avoid having to drive into town on the Saturday and you know, park with difficulty, try to go into a charity shop that may or may not be open to bring a few bags of textile waste. So if you're going to offer us the ability to do that, all from the doorstep, without us having to go anywhere, and the service will be available all the time, we will ensure that we present the goods in the right way. And so one of the big concepts within this area is what's called preparation for reuse. And so preparation for reuse typically starts in the house. And it's all about ensuring that people handle things and sort of segregate them in the right way. Because if you get if you chuck in your toaster and your capital and your unwanted generations of cables from devices that have long since not being used anymore, just doing it like that means that it's very difficult to track those items and obtain value from them even if they may have been working. So I think the big learning was that people were very enthusiastic to support this and do the right thing, on the basis that there was a clear quid pro quo benefit in it for them. So I think that's the learning that we want to really test further with. Because our plan in Brighton is to go to the full extent of their household jurisdiction, which is, you know, over 100,000 homes, which will be a really challenging project, but this is the one we've been preparing for for a long time.
Emily Swaddle 23:48
That's really interesting, actually. And there's a couple of things that came up as you were talking that I would like to ask about further. It's great to hear that there's kind of that buy in from people from the consumers I suppose in the in their own homes. And you mentioned about making it viable making it financially viable to do this door to door collection service. Is there a sort of critical mass that you have to hit in order to make that viable? And to go day to day? Or is it just that there's kind of a lot of flexibility in terms of pickup times? What is it that actually makes that viable?
Paul McSweeney 24:27
It's a really good question. So the $64,000 question because we get asked a lot. And really, viability is a function of density, urban density. And the reason why and this was said to us way back when by the Royal Mail, that if you are at a location and you are doing something logistically, either delivering or collecting, if you're able to do something else with that same transaction at the same time, then the marginal cost of that second and subsequent transaction is almost nothing. And so we thought, okay, so if you're able to go and do two things, so we could be doing, because we are planning to do services that are also strictly commercial come to one good example of a real pathfinder Circular Economy project in a moment. But also if you're able to do multiple transactions in the same area at the same time, which is what our model will permit as well. And in a general sense, Emily, I think it's probably worth saying that in terms of a country, the size of the UK, given the amount of E waste that is prevalent, you could easily do between one and two individual household collections per year. So that would mean from a Brighten perspective that we will be looking at, at the very minimum, we'd be looking at 100,000 collections just limited to E waste. So to broaden the answer a little bit, if you consider a service that is critically dependent on a very slick doorstep experience, it's worth mentioning that one of the companies that I came across in this journey was an amazing American company called Terracycle. T E double R A C Y C L E. And Terracycle have been around for a long time, led by this amazingly, charismatic American individual called Tom Szaky, based in Trenton, New Jersey. And so they've been working for years on targeting difficult to recover plastic waste streams, and then upcycling those into a whole variety of things. They have a bewildering array of offerings, and for example, they can take crisp bags, and they had a famous company in a couple of years ago to try and get back Walker's crisp bags at scale. And they can turn them into garden furniture. That's obviously fantastic. But models like that always put a huge amount of effort into trying to recover from the doorstep. So adding a service like that, for example, on top of ours, where not only would we be collecting e waste, but you know, we could walk, talk and chew gum at the same time. So the idea is that we could do more than one category of collection at the same doorstep collection event. And that's how suddenly it begins to become much more commercially interesting, because you've managed to do two, going back to the advice given to me by Royal Mail all those years ago, you know, the more you do at the same logistical events than that the cheaper it is to deliver service. But what's really interesting now about Terracycle, is they've taken a leap into a new direction, and they've created this, what I personally think is probably the most groundbreaking initiative, helping with the transition to circularity ever. And it's an initiative called loop store, L DOUBLE 0 P S T O R E. Loop store is a whole delivery platform for major consumer brands. So they've signed up for Unilever, Procter and Gamble, and several others, but you've got Unilever and Procter and Gamble kind of means you've got 90% Plus, of all major household brands and how this offering works. And I'll explain how this is of interest to us, is that they're offering reusable packaging for many, many different kinds of household consumables. So you know, shampoos, and things like ice cream from shampoos to ice cream and everything in between. And if you look at just one example, that Tom when he did an absolutely jaw dropping a good presentation of recycling waste management event in Birmingham last year was he showed the container they use for Haagen dazs. Because Haagen dazs is one of the clients and they were trialling this in Florida and Orlando, which as you could imagine, would be a pretty decent market most of the time for ice cream. And the sort of the American ice cream eating experience was that you open the tub, you crank up Netflix, and you sit down on your couch and you scoop it into your mouth over a period of two hours, except by the time you get to 40 minutes, the container has got all squeegee and everything's starting to melt. This is actually a flask. So this was a consumer packaging that was basically a full on flask. And so that means well, it's got to be not recycled, but reused and refilled. So the container had a fairly hefty deposit of it's either five or $10. But it's enough for you to take it seriously. And so their model is all about recovering it from the household, taking it to a place where it gets cleaned to surgical levels of cleanliness, and then sent to a factory that gets refilled and put back out again. And they're applying that that you look, it's really worthwhile looking up their website, but they're applying that all over. So this is a complete shift in consumption in that the packaging, which is the bane of all of us. I just looked up there before we came on air, the global figure for plastic production is scheduled to hit 300 million tons in 2020. And that's absolutely mind numbing, given that we all know where this stuff ends up. And that, you know, according to Ellen MacArthur reports from 2019, only 2% of plastic is meaningfully recycled in spite of what the industry might have you believe. So I think that that Loop store initiative and our interest in that, and their interest in us is that we can make that whole doorstep experience have both delivery and recovery, extremely slick from a consumer point of view so that when you have all these containers that we can both collect them, and then critically, we can also inspect them and apply the deposit because one of the services that we think will be very keenly of interest to big brands in the coming years is the idea which has been introduced in Scotland in a slightly different way. But the deposit return scheme, or DRS. So we'd like to create a doorstep DRS service that could dovetail in with the challenges that the likes of Loop store face when they try to scale their offerings. So it's very interesting times, and we just we see the whole Brighton initiative as being a real Pathfinder project for trialling many, many different kinds of new approach to consumption of which, to me certainly Loop store is the absolute runaway shining, best example of that.
Barry O'Kane 30:47
Hmm, that's really interesting. And one question I have for you, Paul, is, you're kind of providing this platform and service, you know, joining the dots, as you say, reverse logistics to do Circular Economy, terminology of joining the dots between the consumers in the house, and multiple partners who are going to use or reuse the, or recycle in the worst case, the returned items. Are you finding that like in the situation in Brighton, for example, is that a case of those partners or one partner being saying, We need a platform to do this? Or is it more a case of you yourselves as ZeroNet going into the situation saying, you know, we will be here the platform, and we work on coordinating and communicating and doing the sort of organisation of everybody involved? If you see what I mean is, if that's how you see the future of the platform purely, or the sort of coordination of the program as well,
Paul McSweeney 31:42
I think it's very much the case Barry, that we want to use Brighton as a testbed to figure out exactly how our module will work. I think ultimately, we are going to be definitely dependent on real world, partners on the ground, as opposed to, you know, us we live in two software clouds. But we would see ourselves providing a capability to other kinds of partners, what they would run the gamut of logistics on the ground, warehousing the underground and maybe some reprocessing because there's the last count, there's at least 20 different kinds of stakeholder organisations that we can help. You know, from people who recover school uniforms to put those back out again, because that's actually a big market in Scotland, as it turns out, to people who might want to recover things like bicycles, that so many people have, as has been discovered recently, because they're all being taken out of the shed and put back into service. But everybody has an enormous amount of unwanted, used once or used for a time inventory that they simply don't know what to do, there is a vast degree of confusion amongst householders as to what they need to do. And what we want to try and find is a coherent, cohesive single approach that can allow the idea of circularity and let's call it what it is, it's about creating a zero waste model that can scale and knowing was much as I kind of now know about the gap in achieving circularity and the fact that there is this huge hole in the area of professionalised collection logistics, the idea of creating a platform like ZeroNet to accommodate that was sort of too good to be true. I hope that sort of vaguely answers your question.
Barry O'Kane 33:22
No, totally does and thank you for that. The thing that's interesting. And I find it just brilliant. It's such a brilliant story, or I guess, the platform of the product story, when you're talking about the sort of amateurish throwing away of waste. It's just it's a mess, and we don't know what happens to it, and it can't be easily reused or so yeah. It's just basically that throwaway culture, I guess, which I really enjoyed the fact he described that as amateurish. And then you're talking about the platform to sort of professionalise and, and to make that viable, and then also to inherently provide the information with those inventories items as they come back. So you know, what's gonna happen to them or what needs done to them? I think that's incredibly powerful story. The other story that I thought that you started off, and you sort of told us a little bit about, where was your own journey of getting to this point? So you had the original idea, you had this experience with the Ellen MacArthur CE 100, you know, and then it's taken some time, obviously, with as with any difficult problem or difficult product, to get to the point where you're now in real world use or real world trials or prototyping. That's been quite a long process, have, what's driven you what's kept you going through all of that?
Paul McSweeney 34:31
I have a sense that from the outset, at the beginning, it was a hunch rather than something that was validated. But when I first kind of came up with the idea and did a little bit of exploring before I started to validate it, and get some kind of real world endorsement, I was of the view that this really is something that has to be done. So there's a ginormous opportunity here. And I wasn't motivated commercially at this time of going through a bit of a change in life and I thought this has to be done. And as I reached out, I came from a kind of a consulting and sales background. So I knew how to open doors. And so I thought, I'll open some big doors, try and work my way in and just test the idea. And everywhere I went to test the idea, I got positive feedback, but always the same. But look, you know, even large mammoth outfits like the Royal Mail or big brands, they'd say, look, we need to see what would this look like, you know, we're not an investor, we're not that type of organisation, we need to see it working. So I guess what kept me going was the belief that I had stumbled on something, and proven conceptually At any rate, that the idea was very sound. So what kept me going was the belief that if I kept going, eventually that there would be light at the end of the tunnel, I just didn't think that the tunnel would take the bones of the decade to emerge from. I really didn't. But that ignorance is bliss. And I'm kind of glad that if I'd gone back five years, and someone said, Look, you'll finally emerge from, you know, kind of technological hibernation, sometime towards the end of 2020, I was said, that's complete nonsense, such as can be true. So I didn't want to have a plan B, I still don't. This is the only plan that I kind of care about. And I'm at a time in life, without revealing anything further, where there's not an enormous amount of chronological room for other possibilities. So I kind of I've been putting it as diplomatically as I can. So I've kind of stumbled on this and thought, now I'm going to do this come hell or high water. And that's where we are. But it is happening now. And we do have a platform. And it's, it works. It's demonstrable. And it's going to be piloting at scale. So really, the rubber will be hitting the road in Brighton very soon. And I'm very excited about that.
Emily Swaddle 36:35
Yeah, it sounds very exciting. And it's incredible that you've come such a long way and kind of now seeing the fruits of your labour. And as Barry said that, from that initial idea of how do we make the collection side of this cycle? How do we make it bit more professional? And now it's kind of coming into a reality, which is really exciting.
Paul McSweeney 36:56
Yeah, it is. It is.
Emily Swaddle 36:58
Yeah, I actually would like to play devil's advocate for a small moment, ahmm.
Paul McSweeney 37:07
I knew this was coming.
Emily Swaddle 37:11
Because obviously, with the idea of Circular Economy, there is a lot that needs to be done in terms of data and information and logistics, and infrastructure. And that's where you're working incredibly hard to make that a reality. And on the other side, there's also mindset, and mentality and how we as a society, think about how we're consuming and how we're an are kind of duty of care to the things that we do consume and then dispose off. So I suppose my question is, as the disposal of things becomes more professionalised? To what extent does it have the potential to encourage a more throwaway mentality? You know, you mentioned the idea of the kettle. And sometimes you just kind of want a new kettle for your kitchen, or you've done out the house or something. And so if it becomes easier to just say, Oh, well, I'll put it on the app and Paul will come and collect it. How much in your experience of what you've already worked with does that kind of generate less care taken over what we're consuming and how we're getting rid of it, as opposed to actually thinking about things? And the value of things beyond what how we use them.
Paul McSweeney 38:34
I think it's early days, in that sense, in that we're not long enough and long in the tooth and doing this, to have a sort of a definitive view. But what I will say is that there are certain kind of structural incentives that are starting to emerge that will, I think, change the way that people think about what they buy. In the sense that the European Union and the UK as well, because there's still in spite of everything that is going on, there's still a lot of interchange of ideas and sort of legacy policy in the UK. And I think that in spite of everything that's that's going to continue. But I think that there's a one or two very interesting initiatives, one of which is called extended producer responsibility. EPR. And the idea as I referred to earlier, as deposit return schemes, I think that it's going to be possible technically to apply things like deposits to very small items already in Scotland, Scotland is introducing a DRS at the doorstep not at the doorstep before in store take back so shops will be part of the scheme and using very clever squashing technology, this technology is going to be applied to PET bottles, and I think the figure I read and checked out and it seems to be true is that the country is targeting and an astonishing 140,000 items potentially recoverable through this channel, per day, which is. This really gives you an indication of how big the problem is. So This would be drinks bottles. So I think that that kind of necessary behavioral change is going to be carrot and stick. The stick is that you know, you buy something that attracts a deposit, and you don't get your deposit back, unless you handle it in the right way, at the point of completion of your cycle of consumption, and so being able to apply that at the doorstep, I mean, imagine if there was, every time you bought a toaster or a hairdryer, there was a fiver that you had to pay at the point of purchase. And if you, you know, had collected through our surface at the end of life, and you knew that that fiver was lingering in that product, for however long you used it, you would do the right thing. I don't think it would encourage you to go back to your initial question, I don't think it would encourage excess consumption, I think it would nudge people because this is all about the psychology of nudging people to do the right thing. But I genuinely think that if you incentivise people in the right way, and you know, in our case, there's a double incentive, which is you don't have to go anywhere, we'll take it back. And we'll apply the deposit, which will be through your account. And we'll share that deposit then with the stakeholder which could be a council, it could be a brand or whoever or scheme. So I think there's lots of sort of little structural incentives that are starting to emerge and the fact that Loop store have already built in a deposit into their model is brilliant. And obviously, the logistics of how to recover that is something that we're in discussions with them about. So we're a bit early days, Emily, but at the same time, I think it's a, there's lots of positiveness to look forward to and in an odd sense, fact of the household waste recycling centres of the HWRC's are largely no go areas, even if they might be open in different parts of the UK. But the fact that it's not a place where people would want to go right now we think will actually encourage uptake of our service once we hit the streets in September.
Emily Swaddle 41:48
Yeah, that was a good answer. I liked it.
Paul McSweeney 41:51
I have no idea what I just said. So
Emily Swaddle 41:54
I was being very devil's advocate
Paul McSweeney 41:57
Emily Swaddle 41:59
I agree that there's a lot of kind of mentality shift happening already towards this duty of care and this kind of awareness of what happens to our products. And also that mentality of holding companies and councils and kind of bigger authorities accountable to what they're doing with our waste once we put it in their care. So I think that this service that you provide is just kind of playing into that really nicely, actually.
Paul McSweeney 42:25
I hope so. I was just thinking the other day and I was reading about a scandal of plastic recycling and how Sainsbury's and Morrisons bags were ending up in actually found in an Indonesian jungle. I thinking that's just you can't find enough words to express your horror and outrage at something like that. But that's now endemic because of, you know, again, this big structural shift in the last few years, which is China, quite rightly, saying, we're not taking all your crap anymore Western world, we're just not doing it and putting up the so called Green Wall of China to prevent the importation of because it was never properly handled to begin with. And now, the industry is desperately trying to find other outlets and other countries where they can go. And so often it's ending up in places like Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, the countries that are barely able to handle their own waste, because they simply don't have an adequate infrastructure. So that's another scandal of on top of so many other scandals.
Barry O'Kane 43:25
Yeah, that's an endless spiral, as you say, digging into some of the horrors of that. And if I think it's really, it's too, unfortunately, we run out of time for this conversation. I think it's really cool that or I guess, impressive that you've gone through this journey, your personal journey, and then we have this platform that is hopefully going to have that level of impact that we've talked about. I think that's really cool.
Paul McSweeney 43:48
I hope so. We, I mean, if we do it, right, it should have because it is really a complete shift in the way that we handle and process anything that is post consumer that because it's it's trying to solve a fundamental problem that exists effectively for everything. You know, I'm looking around me at my desk area, dozens of objects, some of which have a purpose, many of which used to have a purpose, but are forgotten about even now this used to be my daughter's desk is a little gizmo appear, which is a thing called an E dictionary. I've never seen it before. It's manufactured by Sharp it's, it looks like a pocket calculator. And yet, it's you kind of look at it and go, actually, I can do all of this on my phone now. And so what happens to all of the shiny materials? The answer is I haven't got a clue. Because that's the only answer that any of us have.
Barry O'Kane 44:39
So just before we finish up for any listeners who want to find out more about the work you're doing and more about ZeroNet, where can they go?
Paul McSweeney 44:47
thezeronet.com which is where deliberately not putting out the Brighton story that's still the Scotland story. We will be using Twitter and all the usual things, but oddly, the one thing that we're not going to do is go bananas and social media when we start, we're going to just put blinkers on and really focus on local marketing initiatives. So it'll be easy to obviously flip that over into all of the usual channels as we expand beyond Brighton. But for now we're focused on just getting it right down there, with the kind of minimum noise making. So yeah, we won't be doing a Donald Trump on it in terms of tweeting everything to the masses, everything.
Barry O'Kane 45:24
Awesome. Okay, great. So thezeronet.com
Paul McSweeney 45:27
Barry O'Kane 45:28
Yeah, as usual, we'll put the links there on the show notes on HappyPorchRadio.com. Thank you, Paul. Really appreciate that was an inspiring story for thanks for sharing
Paul McSweeney 45:38
It was a pleasure. So Best of luck to both you.
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