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DOEN Foundation supports Unwaste to use waste as a raw material.

16 June 2022

DOEN Foundation supports Unwaste to use waste as a raw material.

Recycling and reuse seem to be magic words when it comes to the growing mountain of problems that waste gives us; (micro) plastics in the sea, large piles of waste on land and massive incineration that releases terrifying amounts of CO2. But there remain large waste streams for which there is no solution. Unwaste believes in a world where waste does not exist and where organic residual flows form the raw material for a new product: orange peels and coffee grounds are processed in daily care products such as hand soap and shampoo. In this way, we not only make our bodies, but also the world a little cleaner every day. Bart Aupers, co-founder of Unwaste, talks about the journey from waste to raw material.

In search of like-minded people

During research in Ghana and Nigeria, Bart sees the effects of Western consumption. He wonders: “What is our right to produce so much, making such a mess on the other side of the world? During his search for the ‘what and how’, he meets Noor Buur and Robert-Willem Dol, founders of SOOP. They were struggling with the same question: How can we make a positive impact with waste? Together they continue under the name Unwaste.

Soap is the best storyteller

Waste is a broad concept. There are different types, such as paper, glass, plastics and organic waste. The three decide to focus on large organic waste streams, because there is still too little use for them. They chose coffee grounds and orange peels, because they can be collected separately and are full of interesting raw materials. Bart: “It was never my dream to make soap, but the symbolism that you can clean yourself with waste is wonderful.

“The symbolism that you can clean yourself with waste is wonderful.”

Wash the world a little cleaner every day

Many personal care products are harmful to the environment, for example because they contain microplastics or ingredients that are produced under climate-unfriendly conditions. If it is up to Bart, waste as an ingredient in personal care will become the norm. And that’s not so strange: in the past, people also washed their hands with coffee grounds and green soap. Bart: “We are creating some bizarre waste streams that are of no value if we don’t do the right thing with them. Let’s look around again at what’s there and how we can put it to good use.”

From idea to product

Bart: “We initially started with a pitch-black soap made from coffee grounds that would tell the story well, but was not very suitable for daily use.” Further product development was needed, but this takes time and a lot of money. The support from DOEN enabled us to take the next step. Bart: “It has allowed us to professionalise and really work on product development.”

The shampoo bar with coffee oil, a block of concentrated shampoo that looks like soap, is one of these products. Bart: “Coffee grounds contain 9 to 13% coffee oil, which is a perfect ingredient for a care product. In addition, a shampoo bar holds less water, so a cardboard packaging is sufficient. Less waste, less transport of water and less damaging packaging materials result in a more sustainable product.” But this kind of production requires money, which is why Bart and Noor opted for crowdfunding. “It is incredibly exciting whether you can get your message across. We set up the campaign within two weeks and after one day we had already reached 100% funding! That level of faith is really amazing!”

No explosion just yet

Product development remains a tailor-made job. At Unwaste, they were dreaming of a soap with a natural scrub in it. Finely ground dried pieces of orange peel form a nice alternative to plastic microscrubs. “We developed a liquid soap that we were allowed to pitch at the concert hall. It looked great and we had a large quantity produced. What we didn’t realise is that a natural product, sometimes involves natural processes, such as fermentation.”

In the office, the containers slowly began to swell and, with a fright in his heart, Bart thought of the jerry cans full of fresh soap stored in the basement of the concert hall: “Actually, we were saved by the lockdown. This allowed us to recall our products and contract with another production partner who was able to make the soap in a safe way.”

Dreaming of Christmas trees

Besides coffee grounds and orange peels, there are plenty of other waste streams that need a solution, such as the Christmas trees that are left on the street in early January. Bart: “There is such a contrast in this tradition: around Christmas, we gather to think about each other and the problems in the world. It is a moment of reflection and taking care of each other.

And a few weeks later, we rudely throw out the trees that have taken years to grow to this size.” Unfortunately, Christmas trees are so chemically preserved that it is use their oils in a soap. But, notes Bart, “Choose your battles. Within your company, you cannot tackle all the problems: world poverty, unequal opportunities, the food problem. Focus on what you can do to make a difference.”

Our partner DOEN Foundation supports Unwaste with a loan from the Circular Entrepreneurship programme