Rishabh Mittal began recycling plastic bottles from home for the good of the planet.
But when he discovered ZeLoop – a UAE-based company and app that rewards people for depositing bottles at registered recycle points – the Dubai student extended his efforts to include residents in his building.
That resulted in the 13 year old amassing 500 bottles in one month last year, earning him “Eco-Rewards” and providing his family with grocery discounts worth Dh1,000.
“I wanted to do a recycling project as a service action for my school,” says Rishabh.
“While looking for opportunities on Google, I came across ZeLoop where they encourage you to recycle plastic bottles and reward you … this seemed interesting and inspiring.
“I did recycle, but not on a regular basis — ZeLoop encouraged me to make this part of my daily routine.”
Rishabh joined the app in August and began collecting bottles at school and picnics, but he then encouraged neighbours in his Business Bay building to give him their empties, which he deposits in basement recycling bins.
The Indian teenager, whose father is a senior finance professional, recognised the fiscal benefit of maintaining his efforts, for which he has since been designated a ZeLoop “eco ambassador”.
Once registered, users take plastic bottles to recycling points mapped by the ZeLoop community – the platform geo-locates the user who must upload a snapshot of their bottles.
More than 5,000 people have joined in the UAE, of which about 2 per cent are participating weekly, while 11,000 registered users in 150 countries feed 5,000-plus collection points, Eric Schaffner, ZeLoop’s founder and chief executive, says.
For each water, milk, or shampoo bottle deposited – regardless of size, plastic type, clean or crushed – and each new collection point tagged, the user’s blockchain virtual wallet is credited with Eco-Rewards, a digital currency token created by Mr Schaffner and his team.
ZeLoop was deployed worldwide in July 2020 with Eco-Rewards becoming redeemable five months later. Last October, it also became possible to convert them to US dollars or Bitcoin via the Binance chain.
Accumulated rewards can secure discounts with 20 partners on the ZeLoop marketplace – such as cleaning solutions retailer Al Bayader, sustainable products retailer Blue Terra and beauty brand Secret Skin – or contribute to tree planting.
Drawing on 25 years' experience in the beverage and plastic packaging industry, Mr Schaffner is convinced the circular economy can minimise waste and regenerate natural systems.
“One million plastic bottles are produced every minute in the world … every year 78 million tonnes of plastic ends up in nature or landfill,” he says, highlighting that bottles have actual value, so consigning them to garbage is like throwing money down the drain.
“For us, any bottle that doesn’t end up in nature deserves to be rewarded equally,” he says.
“Most of our partners value a bottle at Dh1, so ‘ZeLoopians’ have in their wallets half a million dirhams worth of discount vouchers that can save them 10 per cent to 50 per cent off goods available for redeeming.”
ZeLoop’s gamification model also encourages competition and hosts Eco-Missions, a regular challenge with prizes for best collectors over a designated period.
When the Nestlé Pure Life Eco-Mission initiative ran in the UAE on World Recycling Day, in partnership with ZeLoop, participants collected 50,000-plus recyclable plastic bottles during six weeks. So far, UAE users have collected almost 500,000 bottles.
So what is the incentive for companies to provide discounts on their products?
“Partner brands are motivated to be part of the programme because they want a tangible and measurable action on the ground that reflects their CSR values and strategy,” says Mr Schaffner.
“We are combining blockchain technology and image recognition to offer brands the benefit of a unique, trustable ecosystem.”
UAE start-up EroeGo also aims to reduce landfill by supplying excess and irregular-shaped fruit and vegetables directly to consumers – saving them up to 30 per cent and reducing produce waste.
“We prefer to rescue excess produce that is already in the country, so we work with local farmers and wholesalers rather than overseas wholesalers,” says Daniel Solomon, a British Nigerian who launched the company in September 2020.
“We also rescue ‘ugly’ groceries – fruit or vegetable that is too big, too small or has a funny shape – the produce supermarkets won’t take because of superficial standards.
“All these items are perfectly good to eat and when you reclaim this fruit and vegetable, you are saving the water and resources that went into growing them, too.”
He describes a win-win situation as a three to four kilogram EroeGo box saves about 4kg of C02 and 842 litres of water, while reducing grocery costs for customers.
It means wholesalers and farmers are now selling produce that would probably be discarded.
“The reason the produce might be slightly lower [priced] than conventional produce sales is because they understand the value in making the planet safer, while not losing return on their investment,” says Mr Solomon, 33.
“We want to ensure farmers and wholesalers consider excess and ugly produce as important food that should never be wasted.
“Since they are perfectly good to eat, we can find a new home for them, while offering additional revenue. And, in the process, the planet smiles because of the water and resources we are saving.”
Scottish mum Katie Cuthbert became a customer after spotting EroeGo on Instagram and says she was first interested in the sustainability angle.
“The idea that so much food ends up wasted just because it’s not the perfect size or shape is shocking,” says Ms Cuthbert, 30.
The Dubai-based project manager, who lives in The Springs with her husband and baby son, initially ordered a box every two weeks but now has one weekly.
“I’m not sure how much I’ve saved but it would be at least Dh100 a week, given the amount I receive in each box,” she adds.
“I love the variety [and] getting a selection, rather than choosing what I buy, means I waste much less.”
Mr Solomon sees more people from all backgrounds becoming increasingly conscious of their day-to-day actions, be that recycling, composting, using less plastic, or reclaiming fruits and vegetables that would normally have been wasted.
“Of course, when you know you can do good and enjoy good food without a heavy cost, you are even more invested,” he says.
“In the ‘let’s fight food waste’ community, the motivation is showing that climate action and making our world safer does not have to be expensive.”
But the Dubai entrepreneur recognises a need for more consumer education in many areas surrounding food waste, including the difference between ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates; often a major contributor to food waste.
Mr Solomon, whose company also donates a meal for two people facing hunger for every box delivered, believes there is still much more food to be rescued in the UAE and beyond.
Is there not a danger, however, that mainstream supermarkets will adopt his model and hit EroeGo’s sales?
“Rather than a danger, we actually think it is a good thing if more supermarkets do this,” he adds.
“At the moment, food waste is a huge problem — 8 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions are caused by food waste — and in the Mena region, individuals tend to waste 50 per cent more food compared with someone in Europe or the US.
“So, to make society safer, it is a massive problem the whole grocery system needs to be tackling together.”
Solar panels on homes have also long been a method to slash regular domestic bills, but they require capital investment, which often only long-term UAE property owners are prepared to consider.
Dubai-based SunMoney Solar takes the concept a stage further to help investors grow their wealth and help the environment.
The company builds, operates and acquires solar power plants in Central Eastern Europe and its global community solar power programme allows individuals and institutional investors to become part of an “energy community” and enjoy potential returns.
Once invested, a SunMoney mobile wallet enables participants to check and manage their earnings.
Closer to home, meanwhile, ZeLoop plans to embrace other recyclables in its model, including paper, e-waste, cans and glass, as well as seeking more partners.
“We are going to release a new feature that will reward steps when ZeLoopians collect litter while jogging or running,” Mr Schaffner reveals.
“Our ambition is to make the bridge between any eco-friendly gestures for the benefit of participating people and stakeholders, creating a suite of solutions for a more sustainable world.”
At the grassroots level, Dubai International Academy student Rishabh is busy spreading the word about the ZeLoop mission.
“You can create your own deposit points, which can be near your community, which gives you the ease of depositing bottles without having to go far,” he adds.
“The rewards they give you to recycle gets you into the habit, even if you have never done it before.”