Say “No” to Bottles

A local environmental start-up has launched zero-waste vending machines of detergents and disinfectants, which have so far helped the city to save 800-1,000 bottles of plastic waste a month


– No. of Bottle Free machines in Macau

Vending machines have been commonplace for decades; they could be found in schools, shopping malls, car parks and on the street. And businesses in recent years have not only adopted the vending machine operation for the sales of snacks and drinks, but also daily necessities, souvenirs, freshly brewed coffee, masks and so forth. 

Consumers now could even shop for detergents and disinfectants 24-7 at vending machines across the city — but they just have to bring their own containers. These are the machines put forward by a local start-up, Bottle Free Cleaning Products Limited, which combines the vending machine operation with the zero-waste concept in hopes of offering a greener life choice for the public.

Bottle Free was established in early 2019 by three local residents, who are all involved in the laundry industry and related sectors. “We always pay attention to environmental issues, and there were discussions in the community at the time about introducing plastic bag charges,” Derek Wu, operation manager of Bottle Free, says. He is referring here to the law about restrictions on plastic bags that has been in effect since November 2019, mandating that merchants must charge consumers MOP1 a plastic bag on most occasions for the purpose of environmental protection.

“So we three brainstormed different ideas about what we could do to make contributions to the initiative of reducing waste at source while applying our expertise. These all led to the idea of a zero-waste vending machine of detergents,” he continued. 

As this concept is not novel in Mainland China or Taiwan, the trio at last found a factory in Shanghai to tailor-make the machines for them, and the first machine was available at a shopping mall in Taipa in December 2019. Now Bottle Free machines are located in seven locations — two in Taipa and five on the Macau Peninsula — across the territory, selling laundry detergents, dishwasher detergents, fabric softeners and disinfectants. The entire process of procurement is simple: consumers only need to bring their own bottles, choose their product of choice, and the volume, settle the transaction with an electronic payment method, and wait for the bottle to be filled. 

“This is a common problem local environmental businesses face: the soaring rents. We’re not selling gold and our profit margin is low so it’s not easy for us to afford the high rents,” said Mona Ng, managing director of Bottle Free.

Waste reduction

“When we launched the first machine two years ago, we had not done any promotion beforehand — we didn’t even have a Facebook page for the company at the time,” says Mona Ng, managing director of Bottle Free. “We only relied on word of mouth in the beginning … and we have accumulated a number of supporters throughout the years.”

The zero-waste shopping concept, also known as “naked shopping,” in which consumers opt for purchasing products that are not packaged or with less packaging, has gained momentum in recent years since the world’s first shop, Unpackaged, was inaugurated in London in 2007. As the general public understands more and more about plastic pollution, this trend has spread to different parts of the world, including Macau, which has seen the opening of a few zero-waste stores in the past few years. 

“Our machines help the city to save about 800-1,000 plastic bottles a month, and have saved about 16,000-17,000 bottles since end-2019, enabling the city to generate less waste,” Ms. Ng says. Bottle Free also ensures its operation produces no waste: the bulk bottles it uses to store the products at the vending machines could all be handled at recycling plants and be put into use again after becoming pellets. The company also gathers the little amount of detergents and disinfectants remaining at each bulk bottle — which the vending machines could not completely deplete and provide for consumers — and donates all of them to the local non-profit social service institution Fuhong Society of Macau. 

Indeed, Macau could benefit from this initiative, as it has one of the highest rates of waste generation in the region. The latest annual report about the state of the environment of Macau published by the Environmental Protection Bureau showed that the solid waste generation of the city was 1.74 kilograms per capita per day in 2020, down by 21.6 per cent from the previous year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the figure was still higher than the levels of 1.47, 1.29 and 0.85 in Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai, respectively.

“We’ve learned a lot in these past two years. We thought everything would run smoothly as long as we’re doing it for a good cause,” said Derek Wu, Bottle Free operations manager.

Soaring rents

In spite of the growing public awareness of waste reduction and environmental protection, the operations of Bottle Free in the past two years have endured several hurdles. “What we envisioned in the beginning was to place the machines at different housing estates, providing convenience for people to shop for these necessities while also generating less waste,” the managing director remarked. 

But the property management committees at private residential complexes have not embraced their proposal. “They usually say it’s a good idea but then they will come up with a lot of concerns,” she said. Regarding the public housing projects, the Housing Bureau has turned down their request, as Bottle Free is not a non-profit operation. “We have seen the government open tender for the placement of vending machines in public spaces, but the rental will be MOP10,000 or more [a month] — an amount that only large companies could afford,” she added. 

Given the difficulties to enter the market of housing estates, Bottle Free has adjusted its strategy to deploy the machines at shopping malls or stores — only one of its seven machines is now placed at a housing project, La Marina in Areia Preta. Nonetheless, the rental problem continues to plague them. “Some malls might want to place vending machines of [freshly brewed] coffee or snacks rather than our machines. They could also afford a higher rental level than [Bottle Free],” Mr. Wu explained. 

“Many of our customers have messaged us [through social media platforms] about their preferred locations of the machines. We have actually followed up and asked the landlords, but the requests are usually denied or the rents are too high,” he said. “This is a common problem local environmental businesses face: soaring rents. We’re not selling gold, and our profit margin is low so it’s not easy for us to afford the high rents,” his business partner added. 

Exploring different avenues

After their company having been in operation for two years, Ms. Ng and Mr. Wu revealed that the income of Bottle Free could just cover the expenditures — mainly, the rents and the cost for importing the products — should the labour cost not be counted. The business has so far only been run by the three partners during their leisure time. “We at first wanted to hire people for the regular maintenance of the machines and refilling of the products, but the income has not enabled us to do so,” the operation manager said.

Amid the challenges, there have been a few attempts by Bottle Free to improve its business model — it has been in talks with local universities to place a smaller version of the vending machine in the laundry rooms of student dormitories. The start-up has also directly provided detergents in bulk containers to some local beauty salons, barber shops and eateries.

“We are now also working with several factories on the possibilities of manufacturing our own detergents to better control the costs,” Mr. Wu remarked. “We are also in discussions with different detergent suppliers so that consumers could have more choices.”

Looking forward, the company hopes to dispatch all 12 vending machines it has at the moment in the market, and any further increase in the number of machines depends on the market demand. “We’ve learned a lot in these past two years. We thought everything would run smoothly as long as we’re doing it for a good cause,” the operation manager said. “It’s fortunate that, even though there are different problems, we could still find solutions.”

For Ms. Ng, she understands more about the practical side of running an operation in the business world. “There are supporters for our machines in Macau — the number might not be large, but it is increasing,” she said. “This type of vending machine is also on the rise in many places … so we feel we are obliged to continue.”