Single use plastics, S'well bottles, and Bird scooters

Single use plastics, S'well bottles, and Bird scooters

This Bloomberg article about how we’re coming after the disposable coffee cups is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. So much so, that my friends and I tried a few years ago to launch a company aimed at solving that problem: our society’s overuse of single use plastic or cardboard products.

The basic idea was to create a S’well bottle type bowl to replace all those Sweetgreen, Chipotle, and Chopt bowls. It’s not a coffee cup but it was the same idea of eliminating single use products, just a different product. (And I think all single use plastic will be significantly curtailed like this straw: FinalStraw).

We realized you could build a great business like S’well with nice branding and an awesome social mission, but it’ll likely be very short lived. Our success will always come to an end because Chinese manufacturers can easily copy and replicate the design and undercut you on price. Now generic S’well bottles have flooded the market. Every merchandising company offers an aluminum double or triple vacuum sealed water bottle where you slap your logo on and give it to every new hire. It’s just really hard to maintain margins long term with so much competition, there’s no reason people will continue to pay the brand premium for S’wells.

The quick replication of bottles reminded me a lot of the manufacturing power of China in areas like scooters and bikes. Specifically how scooters and bikes haven taken over cities in the last two years, except with one major somewhat obvious difference from Swell. The commodity hardware was connected to an app, which was pivotal to the experience. You and I can’t get on a scooter without having their app. This is a way to (somewhat) maintain a profit margin on commodity hardware. Bird and Lime have software controlling the usage of it. Even if they have competition from other scooters, there’s some network effect, density, and regulations, embedded into the software and hardware experience that can’t just be replicated for a lower cost everywhere. While one could argue that scooter margins are eroding or already nonexistent, and I’m not disagreeing with that, the jury is still out, competition is a lot less perfect than the market for reselling aluminum water bottles sans a companion app. There is some profit to be found.

Which brings me to back to my original idea for getting rid of single use bowls and cups. For my bowl idea to work from a business perspective, it needs to have some sort of connected app experience. It’ll likely still get commoditized from the hardware side, but margins will exist thanks to any software created network built in.

My original vision was this: a network of bowl drop off and pickup locations that allow you to get the same one off functionality of single use plastic but it gets cleaned and reused. You use an app and a QR code on the bowls to track if you’ve used one and not returned it, find places to return it, and find rewards or deals from food partners like Chipotle or Sweet Green who would have the bowl drop-off locations in their own restaurants. All of a sudden you’ve taken a commodity piece of hardware, connected it to a network using an app that allows you to share it, and given it reusability. The QR code scanning can tell you if it’s been cleaned etc. If you forget to return the bowl you can purchase a temporary 2nd usage. You can use your friends bowl credit to pick up their food. The software could be used to manage pick up and cleaning schedules. There’s so much you can do when you connect these seemingly uninteresting metal bowls when you connect them using software and a network.

Which is where I think the world is heading - the sharing economy is going to come to increasingly smaller underutilized assets. At a certain scale, it’s better than the economics of single use plastics.

Now we just need someone who wants to start a bowl company.

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