It is estimated that around 11 million tonnes of plastic waste flow into oceans every year and this could get worse by 2040. The Covid-19 pandemic aggravated the problem by contributing to the global increase in plastic waste. At the global level, earlier this year, more than 170 countries backed the historic UN resolution to end plastic pollution, with an international legally binding agreement to be in place by 2024.
But what can be done, especially at the consumer level, for people who are using plastics every day?
Sweden-based Bower is taking on this mission with its app that incentivises and rallies the community around recycling. Co-founded in 2015 by brother and sister team Suwar Mert (CEO) and Berfin Roza Mert (COO), Bower’s app rewards users with money and coupons or enable them to donate to charitable causes, whenever they recycle everyday waste items.
Bower’s 380,000 users in the Nordic region recycle more than 2 million packages every month, and the platform has helped save over 1,300 tonnes (1.3 million kg) of CO2 to-date and is currently one of the most popular apps in its native Sweden. The startup recently raised £3.9M in a Late Seed round led by blq Invest to expand globally and now is launching the app in the UK.
We caught-up with Suwar Mert, Bower’s Co-Founder and CEO. Suwar shares the story of founding Bower with his sister, how the app enables long-term behavioural change towards recycling through its incentive schemes and gamification, how they work with big brands and their current expansion in the UK as well as their plans to expand globally.
How did you get started with Bower? What is it like co-founding Bower with your sister?
I came from an engineering background and have always been interested in solving real-world problems with technological solutions. My sister Berfin and I originally started Bower, which was then called PantaPå, to combat the use of plastic bags in supermarkets. We originally offered an analogue system where customers could deposit cotton bags as an alternative. The business soon evolved into rewarding customers for returning their plastic bags, which is where the idea of incentivised recycling was born. We then expanded to rewarding the recycling of all types of packaging.
Co-founding Bower with my sister has been an incredibly rewarding experience. Even though we are six years apart in age, we have always been very close. Our closeness may, in part, be because our parents came to Sweden as political refugees in the early 1980s, with nothing but their children. I will always have an admiration for my parents and the lives that they created for us all in Sweden, and, in leaving their community in Kurdistan behind, we became extremely close as a family. Running a business with your sister of course has its occasional challenges, but our bond as siblings always comes first and empowers our ability to work together. Startup life is fast paced, but we have become very good at working in tandem.
What do you believe are the top three milestones since Bower’s founding in 2015?
Whilst Bower’s mission is to make lasting change to the global plastics crisis, we need funding to be able to do this, so raising €4.1M in a late seed round earlier this year was a big moment for us. Raising this money enables us to expand our business worldwide, and the more we expand, the more change we can make. Expansion is what will help us achieve our goal – to never say trash to anything again.
Another significant milestone was winning PwC Social Entrepreneurs of the Year 2019, and Carnegie and SVD Future Entrepreneurs. Of course, running Bower is about far more than being praised for the work, but this recognition really affirmed that we are doing something to make a difference. We are pioneering the future of recycling, and that work being recognised is a huge boost to our journey.
Finally, and most recently, is our expansion into the UK this Autumn. The UK and US have been our next steps for a while after conquering Sweden, so being able to expand into these markets and help more people recycle and make a difference is a sign that we are well on our way to helping resolve the global plastics crisis.
Beyond incentivising recycling, how do you keep the users of your app engaged? How do you make “recycling fun and rewarding”?
We have really ramped up the gamification of the app in recent months; you can achieve badges and complete challenges (e.g., you are dubbed ‘Florist’ for saving 500g of carbon dioxide). You will also get badges for continuing your ‘streak’ of recycling for several weeks in a row. These badges are increasingly leading to more tangible rewards; we gave away a Bower hoodie earlier this month, and regularly run associated giveaways and coupon schemes with our partnering brands, which is definitely something we want to ramp up in the future.
What have been the biggest challenges in getting brands as “recycling champion” partners?
Large brands that produce products on a massive scale will often find it difficult to align themselves with relevant issues. In a world of B-Corps and various accreditations, it can be hard to know where to begin in making your business more sustainable. Once we were in conversation with these brands, and they could see the value of working together, it wasn’t difficult to get them on board. The biggest challenge was to cut through the noise and get Bower on their radar – once brands see how we can help them to become more sustainable, things get up and running quite quickly and easily.
Bower app’s data bank is built through crowdsourcing where users are constantly registering new barcodes and recycling points to help grow Bower’s reach. How is this working, so far?
It’s working well! In Sweden and in the UK we got to a point where we had both apps up and running with a reasonable level of data, working with various brands and distributors to add bar codes and recycling points. But the crowdsourcing element that took off from this base level has been invaluable – users adding more obscure products or their local recycling points has really enhanced everyone’s experience of the app. Adding recycling points and packaging has been made so efficient and easy, so users are happy to crowdsource and help each other out – and it’s definitely one of the things that is improving the app experience on a daily basis.
Bower was founded in Sweden and made its mark there and the neighbouring Nordic region. Now that you are expanding outside of Sweden, in the UK, for example, do you see any differences in attitudes towards waste between the UK and Sweden/Nordic region?
Bower was invented to gamify and reward an activity that we all know is good for the environment. Our app encourages and creates more excitement around recycling in both the UK and the Nordic countries.
This being said, attitudes and habits do differ. Sweden already had recycle-reward in its culture; we, as a country, have had a can and bottle deposit system that rewards recycling since 1984. You could argue that Bower was a digital enhancement of something that has been ingrained in Swedish culture for 40 years or so.
This is not the case in the UK, where these recycle-reward systems in supermarkets etc. have only popped up in recent years. The UK also recycles slightly differently to Sweden, in terms of curb-side bin collections and so on, so we did have to make some changes to the app to adapt to these habits. But UK residents are keen to recycle and make a difference; we have had to adapt the app accordingly, but the gamification and reward aspect is simple psychology for making an activity more exciting, and this is something that works universally.
After Sweden, why the UK? And after the UK, where are you heading next? Give us an overview of your expansion plans.
Sweden was already a country that had incentivised recycling on its radar. It’s been amazing to have such success in Sweden (400,000 Nordic users recycling more than 2 million products every month), but we must go beyond Sweden to change the world. And to change the world, we need to target regions that are less familiar with incentivised recycling. As an English-speaking European country with great connections to the US, and a country of a size that was fairly easy to scale with the app, the UK seemed like a natural next step.
Once Bower is successfully helping enough UK users to recycle smarter, and get rewarded for it, the US is the inevitable next step. We conducted a pilot scheme with kiwi distributor Zespri, focusing on California, earlier this year, so we are already taking steps to make that happen and develop the app to suit the users and recycling cultures of a variety of regions and countries.
In your opinion, what more needs to be done in order to enable long-term, behavioural change in people when it comes to recycling?
Incentivisation and community are key here. We all know that we need to help the planet. We all know that we need to tackle the global plastic problem. We also know that it can feel as if we are often alone in doing this, when the headlines are so often doom and gloom and the problem can feel overwhelming. This digitisation provides two things: recycling is made fun and accessible, and recycling is made a team effort. Using an app every day alongside hundreds of thousands of other users who are also making a difference, and being rewarded for your good deed, will inevitably make saving the planet easier and more rewarding. You can also track how much CO2 you have saved – being able to translate an everyday habit into the tangible difference that you are making, will encourage you to continue that behaviour in the long run.