Towards a Circular City: One reusable cup at a time
Tim Parker, CEO and co-founder of Circular City was one of the OG Impact Auction pitchers who attended CREATIVE COLLISION back in 2019. Four years on, we sat down with Tim to talk about his journey in making Hong Kong a circular city, the ups and downs beyond CREATIVE COLLISION, and his outlook on Hong Kong’s sustainable journey.
Share Value Initiative Hong Kong: Hi Tim, can you tell us a bit more about how you came across CREATIVE COLLISION, and why you participated as a pitcher for the session, Impact Auction?
Tim Parker: Hi, thank you for having me. I knew about CREATIVE COLLISION 2019 through Eric from V-cycle, who was not able to attend himself, but introduced me to Gaelle the then-CEO. This was days before I launched Circular City as I was still in the reflection stage. Back then, we were working on a Recycling MVP app that aimed to incentivise people to recycle. We wanted to provide a service where you could drop recycles to our vendor partners and get rewards you can use in our partners.
SVIHK: How has being an Impact Auction pitcher at CREATIVE COLLISION impacted Circular City’s journey?
TP: CREATIVE COLLISION was a turning point for me. I received some great support from the people I met. For instance, Ankit Sethi from Agorize, joined us for a bit to build and push forward the idea. I also became a non-resident partner of Dream Impact and was introduced to my co-founder, Debbie Lau, who also has a background in engineering, like me – we clicked right away.
As a pitcher, I received 24 cards in my jars which really showed validation and support. However, covid hit, and we realised that launching the recycling app in the middle of a pandemic was a no-go. Moreover, recycling is letting people know that using single-use plastic is okay, which is not a long-term solution. That’s why we reviewed our solution: we had to rethink the system, which is when the reuse/return system began.
*What is CREATIVE COLLISION and Impact Auction?*
“Recycling is letting people know that using single-use plastic is okay, which is not a long-term solution.
We had to rethink the system.”
SVIHK: So, can you tell us a bit more about how and when did Circular City evolve?
TP: We rethought our system and put two ideas in front of our focus group, recycling, or reuse /return. The reusable system turned out to be more popular.
We entered the first competition as a reusable app in the summer of 2020 but got chopped down by the panel which half consisted of plastic manufacturers. Again, this was at the height of covid, there were a lot of hygiene concerns, which was instantly a barrier.
In October 2020, we pitched the idea to Cyberport and successfully received a grant, which enabled us to develop the system with NFC cups for our first CHOOSE REUSE pilot launch. NFC cups were later discontinued, our current system (ch00ze.club) uses QR codes.
SVIHK: Knowing that the core of Circular City is the community and different local businesses, what does partnership mean to Circular City?
TP: Our north star is SDG 17 Partnership for goals – it is the only way for this system to work. When we piloted, our vendor partners were Uncle Russ and Hemingway at the Discovery Bay pier. We are now working with 40 F&B partners across Hong Kong, and our NGO partner Green Peace.
SVIHK: Same – our north star is also SDG 17, as we strongly believe one person cannot achieve the same impact as a collective, and we need to work together for a better future.
Apart from working with local vendors, how do you think Circular City is an example of creating shared value, beneficial for the community as well as bringing economic value?
TP: Vendors providing a reusable option for customers creates strong brand equity – it’s brand loyalty. It’s also cost-saving in the long run because their monthly fee for Circular City is determined by their transaction – the more they use the system, aka more customers choose ch00ze cups, the cheaper the monthly fee is, they are also purchasing fewer disposable containers.
Our app is free for users, Circular City’s Ch00ze cups do not require an extra fee for customers. Through the app, they are able to see their personal impact every time. It’s important for users to be able to see their positive impact and be encouraged to choose reusable more often. Our data shows that most customers returning a cup will buy another drink within 5 minutes of returning a cup. This is an additional sale for the coffee shop they would normally not have had with a single use customer.
Photo courtesy of Tim Parker
“When I went to the beach in Northern Ireland as a kid, I was playing with seashells; my 3-year-old is playing with plastic pieces, and he thinks it’s normal.”
SVIHK: What have been your challenges?
TP: As our main target is the F&B industry, one of the challenges is trying to make them understand why they should swap to reusables. A lot of them are confused as they have been heavily marketed with other “sustainable” items, but they don’t realise that these compostable, bioplastic materials are not compostable nor recyclable in Hong Kong, because we do not have the infrastructure! So they could be as bad as using single-use plastic.
SVIHK: How can Circular City offer other businesses the possibility to create shared value through what you provide?
TP: As mentioned, providing a reusable option to customers enables cost savings and we also offer customisable cups, which can help with brand loyalty. You’re creating positive impact on the world by producing less trash, but also economic values to the business.
But a push from policy and the government doesn’t hurt! There is a startup in Germany that bloomed overnight due to policy change. Restaurants are now required to offer reusable options for customers, and those reusable containers cannot be charged more than what it’s containing.
SVIHK: Thank you for sharing your journey with us. One last question for you – why is creating shared value imperative for business today?
TP: The way of doing business is changing, and if companies don’t move, in 20 or 30 years, they won’t be here! Other companies will have gotten the talent and the innovations because the younger generations are demanding more. Having been a teacher previously, I noticed, and am still surprised by how many of them (younger generations) want to work for purpose-driven companies rather than corporate jobs. So don’t trash the planet for profit, and don’t get on the wrong side of the next generation because they will have the money-power soon, so if you don’t move, you have an issue.
Time and facts
- 2019 Nov CREATIVE COLLISION was a good springboard, it helped put Circular City on the map and got some good exposure.
- 2020 Summer First pitch of the reuse system at a public competition and got chopped down, half of the panel was plastic manufacturers. They had serious concerns about the hygiene, there was instantly a barrier.
- 2021 July Launched CHOOSE: REUSE proof of concept pilot, funded by Cyberport. Pilot with their partner Uncle Russ and Hemingway coffee shops at Discovery Bay and Central piers and Plastic free seas. The 6-week pilot lasted 14 months instead. 6000 cups were borrowed and returned, 95% return rate, 700 registered users.
- 2021 Nov One of the Innovation award winners from the City I&T Grand Challenge competition. This provided additional grant funding to further develop their concept into a new system called ch00ze.club, which expanded to operating across 40 F&B outlets across Hong Kong.
- 2022 July Launched ch00ze.club community network with 6 coffee shops & 1 NGO partner.
- 2022 Oct Accepted into Cyberport Incubation Programme.
About the Author
Digital Marketing & Partnership Coordinator
A passionate and dedicated eco-warrior, Jackie is always looking for more opportunities to make an impact and contribute to the social and environmental sectors in Hong Kong.