Filljoy: A better, plastic-free way to shop with refillables
Technology for retail stores that makes it easy for customers to shop using reusables
Pitch us on your solution
Filljoy is a Bay Area-based technology startup whose mission is to reduce single-use plastic in retail environments. In the U.S., packaging makes up nearly a quarter of landfill waste with much of that packaging being food-related (EPA 2015). Founded at the start of 2019, as of the time of this writing
Our company has developed an innovative technology solution that removes the friction for both stores and customers when shopping with a reusable container. Founded at the start of 2019, Filljoy is now being actively used in 11 retail stores across the US and Canada.
We hope to make the process of shopping with reusable containers more frictionless for communities in Latin America and the Caribbean, and to help alleviate the "poverty tax" they are subjected to when they purchase small single-plastic sachets of products.
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What is the problem you are solving?
Less than 10% of plastic on Earth has ever been recycled (National Geographic), and a shockingly low 1% of plastic bags are returned for recycling (Waste Management). By 2050, it's estimated that there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean (World Economic Forum).
In poorer regions across Latin America, families and individuals typically must purchase items in smaller quantities (known as sachets). However, these items typically cost 70% more given the individual packaging and also come at great environmental cost due to the single-use plastic. It's estimated that 85% of Latin America is affected by this "tax" (Fast Company) which equals ~550m individuals.
We hope to make the process of shopping with reusable containers more frictionless for these communities by using low-cost Android devices and NFC tags.
Who are you serving?
Vulnerable and low-income populations are affected most directly by the ongoing plastic crisis; however, the root cause for much of this crisis has been driven by wealthy countries such as the United States, which produces 37.83 million tons of plastic each year (Our World in Data), most of which is sent to countries abroad.
In order to serve these vulnerable populations, we must stem the flow of single-use plastic and the "throwaway culture" that has pervaded here in the United States. We are working closely with our retail store partners to understand their needs around meeting customer demand for package-free alternatives, as well as actively gathering direct customer feedback within stores to continually iterate on the product and create a delightful user experience for those customers who wish to shop with a reusable container.
What is your solution?
Filljoy is a hardware/software solution that can act as a standalone kiosk within grocery store bulk aisles, or serve as a store's primary Point-of-Sale solution, as in the case of smaller "refill shops." In short, we have created a streamlined, technology-enabled process for the customer shopping experience of bringing in one's own reusable container, filling it with a good sold by weight, and completing the checkout for this item.
The full solution can be described below; we also invite you to view the short, 90-second demo video at filljoy.co which illustrates a prototype of the solution (which has since been improved upon).
1) An empty container is placed on a digital scale that is connected to a tablet, and a near-field communication (NFC) smart tag is then scanned to capture this tare weight. This process can be repeated for multiple empty containers prior to beginning their bulk shopping experience.
2) The customer then fills their container with an item sold by weight, the filled container is weighed again and the same NFC chip is scanned, automatically deducting the empty container weight
3) The customer selects their item which then automatically calculates the net weight and total price
4) This process is repeated for each container as needed and then depending on the store:
- Payment is either processed with a single tap using Square Point of Sale (e.g., for smaller refill shops using Square as their Point of Sale)
- A digital barcode(s) is produced at checkout that a grocery store can scan using their own point of sale software
Today, Filljoy employs the following technologies:
1) Near-field communication (NFC) technology. By simply scanning an NFC chip to capture a container's weight, Filljoy eliminates transcription errors that occur when weights must be manually noted or written down.
2) Digital barcodes on mobile smartphones. As mentioned previously, some older grocery POS systems do not allow for tare weights, but most enable the scanning of "random weight" barcodes with the price embedded (similar to what a deli counter would produce). By producing these barcodes with the price embedded based on net weight, Filljoy's system becomes nearly universally compatible for grocery stores.
3) Integrating with third-party application programming interfaces (APIs). Filljoy currently integrates with Square's API, thus enabling a shop to ring up a customer using Filljoy and then process the payment using Square with just a single tap.
Select only the most relevant.
Where our solution team is headquartered or located:Oakland, CA, USA
Our solution's stage of development:
Describe what makes your solution innovative.
Bulk shopping in grocery stores has not seen much, if any innovation, in the last few decades. Customers are forced to write PLU numbers on twisty ties and resort to use a plastic bag. In the event they do bring their own container, they're required to weigh it beforehand at checkout with no way to easy way to capture their tare weight or the bin number of their bulk food item.
For zero waste refill shops that are weighing nearly every transaction, this problem is exacerbated and results in human error, long checkout lines and stressed out employees.
Filljoy makes this process easy by enabling a customer or store employee to simply scan an NFC tag and associate this tag with a container's tare weight. Once they have filled up their container, they can then scan the same chip which will automatically deduct the tare weight and provide a seamless checkout experience.
By reducing the friction for customers in this way, we can encourage widespread adoption and a cultural movement around shopping with reusables.
Why do you expect your solution to address the problem?
We believe our solution addresses the problem in two key ways:
- The first is by reducing the actual friction in terms of the mechanics of shopping with refill. By making this process easier and creating customer delight, we encourage those customers who are already aware of this type of shopping to continue shopping this way and letting them know that companies are addressing their needs
- The second is moving beyond the existing "zero waste" demographic; by having a Filljoy kiosk in every grocery store, it also acts as a beacon and creates awareness for this kind of shopping. Based on our conversations with customers in grocery stores, most customers are actually not aware of the possibility of "bring your own container," but it makes sense to nearly everyone. By creating this kind of awareness, we believe it will encourage adoption of this kind of behavior which will also ripple into other facets of their lives in terms of daily decision making with respect to environmental impact.
Select the key characteristics of the population your solution serves
In which countries do you currently operate?
In which countries will you be operating within the next year?
How many people are you currently serving with your solution? How many will you be serving in one year? How about in five years?
Currently serving: about 25-50 customers each a week across 11 stores = 1,000-2,000 unique customers per month.
In one year: We expect to be in 100 stores one year from now. If we estimate that each store gets 20 uses a day and each customer shops once a week, then this is 14,000 unique individuals we'll be serving.
In five years: We hope to be in 4,000 stores in 5 years and we believe that Bring Your Own Container will be a common behavior; as such, if we estimate that each store gets 50 uses per day and each customer shops once a week, this is 1.4m individuals.
How do you measure your solution’s positive impact? If available, what measurable impact have you had in the last three years?
Environmental: Reduction in single-use plastic. To date, we have helped facilitate thousands of refill transactions through our platform.
Social: Creating lasting cultural change around shopping with reusables as an everyday activity.
Economical: Enabling low-income communities to save money and avoid the "poverty tax" that comes with paying for small-quantity single-use plastic sachets and instead refilling existing containers
What are your goals within the next year and within the next five years?
Within the next year, we hope to be the most widely-adopted POS system for zero waste refill shops and to be in 50+ stores, including one major chain. Within 5 years, we hope to be in 4,000 stores and to be a common fixture in all major grocery stores.
More broadly beyond our business goals, through our technology and by being visible in stores, we hope to contribute to a widespread cultural movement around the adoption of reusables and bring-your-own that will ripple out to millions of individuals both domestically and internationally.
What are the barriers that currently exist for you to accomplish your goals for the next year and for the next five years?
- Financial: Like any bootstrapped startup, we have limited financial runway and in order to accelerate our growth and product development timelines, we will require outside capital
- Technical: While we've developed the core technology in-house, to take our solution to the next level we will require additional expertise around microcontrollers and hardware engineering.
- Legal: The current FDA language around "refilling returnables" does not explicitly address the bulk food use case and certain states and cities may also have their own laws around it. As such, many stores actively encourage and advertise to have customers do this behavior, while others cite vague "regulation" disallowing this behavior.
- Cultural: Currently in the United States, the adoption of "bring your own" is still considered niche
- Market: Related to the cultural point above, we must be able to convince grocery store decision makers that supporting this type of plastic-free shopping is imperative to remaining relevant to customers who are increasingly demanding these alternatives
How are you planning to overcome these barriers?
- Financial: We plan to raise additional funding by the end of 2020 in the way of additional grants, friends and family / angel investors, and venture capital.
- Technical: With the additional funding (and hopefully selection into MIT Solve's Finalist group) we hope to connect with additional technical expertise to help us further our product vision. In addition, Derrick has a wide network from his time at Google that he can also tap into to seek out additional talent and expertise in this realm.
- Legal: We plan to mobilize the online zero waste community to petition the FDA for language that explicitly allows this type of shopping behavior. Between their latest 2017 regulations and their most recent 2013 regulations, they relaxed the language substantially around refillables and we expect this trend to continue for the next publication.
- Cultural: We which will create broader national awareness through press (we have already been interviewed by an environmental journalist who has written for Civil Eats, et al) and let individuals know that technology companies are also supporting plastic-free shopping.
- Market: We plan to use the data we get from our pilot partner Alameda Natural Grocery, to serve as a lighthouse case study for other grocery stores to illustrate the value that having Filljoy brings to their store
Please select one.
If you selected “I am planning to expand my solution to Latin America and the Caribbean,” please provide an overview of your expansion plans. What is the market opportunity for your business or product in Latin America and the Caribbean?
We are planning to perform outreach to grocery stores and zero waste shops located in Latin America and the Caribbean through internet channels and social media. The market opportunity for our product in these regions is large - the estimated market size for grocery retail revenue is over 500 billion dollars.
What type of organization is your solution team?
How many people work on your solution team?
Full-time (1): Founder, core Android/product development, sales, everything else
Part-time (2): Marketing, product research
Contractors (3): Additional Android development, graphic design, branding
For how many years have you been working on your solution?
Why are you and your team best placed to deliver this solution?
As the founder of Filljoy, I bring nearly 12 years of professional experience spanning across large technology companies, startups, and nonprofits. Over the course of my career I have developed a skill set that I believe has prepared me well to launch my own company in a space I am passionate about.
Most recently I was at Google where I partnered closely with clients to help them reach their marketing goals and also built various internal sales tools. Prior to Google, I was at a Y Combinator-backed education technology startup where I was responsible for a wide range of mission critical activities, from marketing to leading university partnerships to launching an iPad app in the Apple App Store. I began my career at Intuit where I worked in several different functions such as product management, corporate strategy and development, and finance.
In addition to my professional experience, I am passionate about our food systems and reducing waste. This past fall I spent over a month volunteering on an organic farm in the Pacific Northwest in order to better understand where our food comes from and the people who produce it for us. In terms of professional development, I also recently attended the Zero Waste Conference held in Vancouver, BC where I connected with several individuals making a large impact in the circular economy space.
With what organizations are you currently partnering, if any? How are you working with them?
We are currently partnered with the following retail stores in a closed beta:
- StopWaste.org - we are a 2019 grantee and received a $15,000 grant to pilot our solution in Bay Area grocery stores
- Altamont Education Advisory Board - we are a 2019 grantee and received a $3,000 grant to pilot our solution in Bay Area grocery stores
We are currently live in 11 stores comprising natural grocery stores, zero waste grocery stores, and zero waste refill shops across the United States and Canada:
- The Source Zero (San Jose, CA)
- Alameda Natural Grocery (Alameda, CA)
- El Cerrito Natural Grocery (El Cerrito, CA)
- Earthwell Refill (San Diego, CA)
- Verde Market (Miami, FL)
- The Zero Shop (Santa Cruz, CA)
- eco+amour (Toronto, Canada)
- PrettyCleanShop (Toronto, Canada)
- Bare Market (Toronto, Canada)
- No Tox Life (Los Angeles, CA)
- Fillgood (Albany, CA)
What is your business model?
Filljoy's planned business model is twofold:
- Hybrid "software and hardware as a service" which entails a monthly license fee paid by stores using the Filljoy solution.
- Product sales of reusable containers to customers that are pre-stickered and compatible with the Filljoy store ecosystem
What is your path to financial sustainability?
Filljoy is currently funded through a combination of bootstrapped funds from the founder as well as grants from various public agencies in California. We expect and hope to receive more funding in 2020, as well as to raise a seed round of investor capital during this period as well.
In terms of our path to financial sustainability, our current financial model projects break-even by late 2021 / early 2022 based on the number of stores we will be able to successfully launch and partner with.
Why are you applying to the Rethink Plastics Challenge?
In addition to the tremendously helpful prize funding, we believe the power of MIT's network can help us in 3 primary ways -
- Finding a potential cofounder; to date, I as the founder have been working solo. But the old adage goes, if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
- Hardware and technology expertise. Our current solution utilizes near-field communication technology and tablet computers / Android development, and our ultimate vision is to continue innovating to build the next generation of bulk and zero waste shopping. This would likely require expertise around microcontrollers (arduino / raspberry pi), flow sensing, and other custom hardware development which is something our team currently does not possess.
- Entrepreneurial mentorship. This is the founder's first venture and as such, we are actively seeking guidance in terms of strategic decision making. Being able to connect with MIT's extensive network of experienced entrepreneurs will surely be helpful on this front.
What types of connections and partnerships would be most catalytic for your solution?
With what organizations would you like to partner, and how would you like to partner with them?
- Trade Fixtures and other manufacturers of bulk grocery hardware
- SunRidge Farms / Falcon Trading and other producers of foods that are typically sold in the bulk aisle
- Square, Shopify, Revel Systems, Clover, ShopKeep, and other tablet-based point of sale systems with an open API
- Large mainstream and natural grocery stores
- Derrick Chao Founder, Filljoy