The packaging industry accounts for a large proportion of the plastic soup. A number of shops solve this problem by allowing customers to fill their own jars. “But this is only part of the problem,” explains Mirek Lizec, executive director of the Prague start-up MIWA, which stands for minimum waste. The start-up came up with a smart technology solution for the entire chain, from food producer to consumer. “We want to keep the use of plastic to a minimum throughout the supply chain.”
What is the problem that you’re trying to solve?
Manufacturers wrap products in bulk and send them to distribution centres. This is where the product is unpacked and distributed to various supermarkets. They use a lot of plastic here as well. So even before a consumer gets their hands on a product, a lot of waste is already being produced. And that’s happening without even mentioning the packaging industry itself.
There are solutions, but they only address the packaging problem for the consumer at the end of the chain. For example, customers can fill their own containers with products. For retailers, these kinds of solutions are a nightmare because you can’t guarantee the quality of the products. They have to open packages or touch the food which can lead to contamination. You also have to work with separate labels and it’s difficult to keep track of expiration dates.
And MIWA’s going to fix this?
We reduce the use of disposable plastic on the manufacturer’s side. We have designed 20 litre cartridges for manufacturers to put their goods in, so they don’t have to pack each product separately. The shops have smart dispensers where retailers can click the cartridges into place. There is no need to touch the goods, which means that there is no risk of contamination. Consumers have an app which they can use to select a product and the quantity. When they place their micro-chipped container in front of the dispenser, the dispenser knows exactly how much to put in the container. When the cartridges is empty, the retailer sends it back to us. It is ready to use again after we wash it out. We designed the cartridge so that it can be reused up to 300 times. We complete the circle by sending the cartridge back to the food manufacturer.
What are you offering?
Our goal is to develop a self-service shop. Where we not only make it as easy as possible for the customers. As in, no hassle with scales and automatically pay for what you have picked up via the app. The app is still under development. But we also make it easier for retailers. They know exactly what they still have available thanks to the smart dispensers. We also take the cartridges back and clean them. We deliver this as a service, as well as updating and checking the dispensers.
How far have you got with this?
We have several tests underway. We have already tested 200 different products in the cartridge. From cornflakes to instant coffee, rice and pasta. Pasta in weird shapes can still be a problem because it has to be able to come out of the dispenser easily. Also, wet or sticky foods are difficult at the moment. We are working on a solution for this.
Country Life uses our capsules and dispensers in Prague. And in Switzerland, we are testing together with Nestlé. In September we started in a Country Life shop, this was the first big test. And the first time consumers were able to respond to it. It’s an interesting process. With Nestlé, we are already going a step further. It’s a great opportunity for us to work with them. We have the technical knowledge to make this work, they know about food and because it’s such a major brand they have a great understanding of the supply chain. This cooperation makes it possible for us to scale up more quickly.
What can we expect from you in the coming years?
Next year in March we want to launch the consumer app and we hope to run a pilot involving more than 100 products in Germany’s largest supermarket. Countries such as France and The Netherlands are also interesting, as consumers are open to these kinds of concepts. Through various pilots, we are endeavouring to demonstrate that our method works.
Fortunately, there is a lot more awareness for the plastic waste problem and how huge the problem is. Major brands have agreed to reduce the use of single-use plastic and we think we can help them achieve this.
Where would you need some help with?
It is sometimes difficult when it comes to funding. We constantly have to prove that we are able to deliver. But we are being offered a lot of opportunities too. So it’s not like I’m complaining or anything like that, this is all just part of running a start-up. We need €1 million and have now gotten 20 percent of that. We are trying to get ourselves noticed through all kinds of channels. Going to events, talking to the press. Anything to make sure that we get noticed by investors.
Why are you doing this?
I’ve worked in advertising for nineteen years. By the time I was 30 and had children, I felt like something was missing, even though I had a successful career. I saw an inconsistency in brands who said they wanted to be more sustainable and their ability to actually deliver on that promise. When Peter, our founder, contacted me to work together I immediately said yes. Because Peter had worked on a variety of packaging solutions for big brands, he knew exactly how big the problem was. We both feel that major companies have to show responsibility towards the environment. They have to take responsibility for single-use packaging. We gathered a group of enthusiastic people with the relevant know-how around us to help us solve this predicament. I like this sense of togetherness, the idea that we all work for the same goal. That gives me a lot of energy.