How Catalyst funding has helped to disrupt waste services in Exeter - RSA

How Catalyst funding has helped to disrupt waste services in Exeter


  • Picture of Philippa Roberts FRSA
    Philippa Roberts FRSA
    Tech entrepreneur and environmental innovator
  • Circular economy
  • Catalyst
  • Environment
  • Fellowship

My vision is a world where nothing is wasted and resources circulate in the economy for as long as possible at as high a value as possible. For this to happen, we need to change the systems, products, thinking and behaviours that are prevalent in the waste industry.

As I write this today in 2019, we are beginning to see significant change in the thinking around waste on a global scale. Today innovation and ideas that create a more circular economy are growing substantially in popularity, even starting to hit the mainstream. But back in 2016, when I received RSA Catalyst funding to develop an app for engaging with and educating consumers on the waste and litter problem, we were only just starting to realize the extent of the catastrophe created by waste and its impact on the environment.

The focus of my project was initially marine plastics litter and how to stem that tide. The app began life as a tool to collate litter data. We planned to geo-tag the waste to identify the levers in the system, which would help us better understand where the litter was originating and who was responsible for it. We would be collating large data sets to map both the local and global movements of waste and litter.

Catalyst funding crucially allowed me to explore not just the potential for the app and how it might work, but also to have some vital conversations that started me thinking in more depth about the root cause of the litter problem. I became convinced that whilst the need to understand the source and sink of marine litter remained unquestionable, there was a more pressing need for me to begin by taking action closer to home. I wanted to maintain the focus on data and understanding waste but rather than looking at the end point, when the litter is already in the environment, I wanted to look at the source, at how waste ends up leaking into the environment in the first place. Doing so meant focusing on waste collection services.

Being Exeter based I chose the city as my testing ground. I began exploring how the problems associated with business waste and its collection in the city-centre could be solved. I then received further funding and support from the Exeter City Futures Velocities programme and my work gathered apace.

Collecting data was key to getting to grips with the problem. I and my small but growing team surveyed 600 businesses in Exeter, asking them a wide range of questions around their current waste arrangements. From their responses we gained a good understanding of the issues they were facing. Then we started working on the solutions. 

In the past year my company Binit, has started a recycling and rubbish collection service in Exeter. We have 78 businesses signed up. We have taken all that we have learned (and continue to learn) from listening to businesses and are applying that learning to deliver truly customer led services across the city. 

Our listening has also taught us something really interesting, something that is rarely, if ever factored into the provision of traditional waste services. Businesses want to trade on clean, tidy streets and from premises where bags of recycling and rubbish don’t blot the landscape. Unsurprisingly, shoppers value that too! Learning this simple fact has been invaluable.

The Binit service looks different from that of others, because it has been shaped by what customers tell us, not by our own needs. That will always be the Binit way, either by: putting QR codes on bins so that we can tell when they need emptying without anyone needing to pick up the phone; by working closely with businesses to create the ideal space for their bins; or by stripping back the website to make it easy for customers to book services and order collections online. 

Our aim is to make ‘binning it’ as hassle-free as possible! 

Making the lives of our customers easier has created benefits for the wider community too. We have found that with the right placement, the right appearance and the right frequency of collection, bins do not detract from the attractiveness of a place at all. Done right they not only serve their purpose well, they can also look great. 

Exeter is a city full of ideas, enthusiasm and support. Businesses love the city and Binit is enjoying being part of making their day to day lives easier. Building on the Exeter model, we plan to roll out our services beyond the city in April.

Alongside this roll out, we are also exploring new tech ideas that will help make our service even better. So if there are other value-led businesses out there who are keen to experiment with us or to help us test our tech before roll out, do get in touch!

Philippa Roberts is co-founder and CEO of Binit UK. She can be contacted at [email protected]. More information about Catalyst funding, which can be awarded to Fellow-led projects that align with the RSA's values, can be found on the RSA website.

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