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How one Chilean startup is bringing an end to single-use plastics

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By Naomi Larsson for The Guardian Labs

When José Manuel Moller was a student in Santiago, Chile, he lived in the poorer neighbourhood of La Granja with three friends. Moller, who was in charge of cooking for his housemates, realised that when you’re living on a low income, you’re forced to buy what you need each day in smaller amounts.

 

“I was buying regularly in almacenes [neighbourhood shops]. I realised that at the end of the month we were spending a lot of money, because when you buy small packages you pay much more than if you were buying larger packages,” he says.

 

He describes this as “poverty tax … [it] is what the poor families pay because they don’t have enough liquidity to buy larger packages”. Across the developing world, products such as shampoos and ready-made food can be bought in small quantities in plastic sachets. These sachets have brought quality products to poorer consumers, but at an environmental cost.

“Plastics are everywhere around us and demand for them is expected to double in the next 20 years,” says Sander Defruyt, new plastics economy lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity that works towards achieving a less resource-intensive economy. “Yet our plastics system is broken. Only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling, resulting in a loss of $80-120bn a year to the global economy. If nothing changes, there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.”

Moller agrees: “For us, it’s absurd that we have to pay for something that we’re going to throw, and also now it’s contaminating our oceans.” So, five years ago he and his colleagues came up with the idea forAlgramo, a startup that promotes reusable plastic containers as an alternative to single-use packaging. “The double mission of Algramo is social and environmental,” he says.

Algramo sells food and hygiene products through vending machines that dispense goods such as lentils, rice and cleaning supplies into reusable containers. Customers first have to purchase the reusable container (about 17p, Moller says), and then with the container they can buy directly from the self-service machines that can be found in 1,600 stores in the Chilean capital. Once the containers have reached the end of their life they can be traded in for a discount on a new one, and will be recycled into new plastic feedstock.

Algramo estimates they already have made an impact on 250,000 people, and by the end of the year they hope to have dispensing machines in 2,300 stores.

“With chemicals [like laundry detergent], we are between 30 and 40% cheaper than our competitors, with the same quality. That’s because the packaging and the marketing of some products represents more than 50% of the cost. So it’s really simple, if we reduce that, we can offer that as a saving for the client,” says Moller.

Algramo’s environmental focus reflects a change in attitudes towards plastic waste in Chile. At the end of May, Chile’s congress approved a bill to ban single-use plastic bags – the first country in the Americas to do so. It follows the announcement of a ban of single-use plastic bags in Chile’s coastal towns and villages. The country uses more than 3.4bn plastic bags each year – roughly 200 for each person. And 97% of those will end up in landfills or oceans (Chile has one of the longest coastlines in the world).

“Our fish are dying from plastics ingestion or strangulation – it’s a task in which everyone must collaborate,” Chilean president Michelle Bachelet said in a speech last October.

The ban is a positive and bold step, but Moller also notes that, aside from plastic bags, there’s still so much plastic in everyday product packaging. “The problem is not just the bag, it’s all the packaging we’re consuming. That’s why Algramo is trying to offer a solution that’s not more expensive than other products.”

 
The company was recently recognised in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s new plastics economy initiative, which aims to accelerate the transition to a circular economy, where resources are kept in use for as long as possible. It’s an alternative to a traditional linear economy, where resources are typically discarded after a single use.

“Supermarkets are full of single-use plastic packaging, created to keep groceries safe and fresh, but most of it ends up being landfilled, incinerated or, worst of all, polluting the environment. Algramo is an example of how, by rethinking the way we get products to people around the world, innovators can design out the need for much of that packaging,” says Defruyt.

“Dispenser systems are not new, but Algramo is at the forefront of making them a frugal and robust system for markets where single-use sachets are the most prominent form of packaging and where recycling infrastructure is limited.”
Moller adds: “Our system today shows us that we’re reusing more than 80% of the plastic that we’re offering to the consumer, so we have changed habits – now people are used to returning the containers.

“The important thing is that this is not more expensive, as with the traditional eco-friendly solution,” he says. “We want to show that sustainability is not just for rich people – it must be for everyone. We are not working in a rich place, we are working with the poorest communities. Those poor communities now understand that if they reuse the container, they’re saving money, but they’re also reusing the plastic that they are throwing [away].”