Taking ‘yuck’ factor out of composting

A bag within a box is this start-up’s innovative way to enable households to recycle and compost more, writes Trish Dromey.

Whether the UK leaves the EU or stays in, Dublin start-up company Obeo believes the market there is wide open for a food waste box that helps take the ‘yuck factor’ and the stink out of composting.

In readiness for a UK launch in the autumn, the company has just raised €350,000 in funding and is already targeting high-end multiples such as Waitrose and Sainsbury’s.

“ Even if the UK exits the EU and the pound gets weaker we will go ahead — it’s a huge market with major issues in relation to food waste recycling and we see a gap that our product can fill,” said Obeo chief executive Elizabeth Fingleton.

According to Ms Fingleton, the Obeo box, which now sells in over 150 stores around Ireland, offers a simple solution to a very messy problem.

“A cardboard bag within a cardboard box, it’s used in the kitchen for daily food waste — it doesn’t leak, tear or smell and when it’s full, goes straight into the brown bin for composting.”

Although it is a simple solution, it took 18 months to work out the design and find the right materials. “Our first prototype was too labour intensive to make, our second couldn’t deal with wet waste and our third was too expensive to make,” said Ms Fingleton.

Finding a manufacturer willing to do a small production run for a for a start-up was also problematic, but Obeo sourced one in the UK.

Company co-founder Kate Purcell, a packaging and product designer, came up with the product idea while doing a Masters in Design Sustainability and joined up with Ms Fingleton, a chartered accountant, in establishing Obeo in 2014. Enterprise Ireland helped with commercialisation funding and, while the product was still in the design stages, Dunnes Stores agreed to become Obeo’s first customer.

Setting up at an incubation space at the National College of Art and Design, in Dublin, the founders used their savings to order 10,000 boxes which arrived in June.

Said Ms Fingleton: “They went on sale in 50 Dunnes Stores outlets and we worked on marketing — travelling the country showing samples, making phone calls and advertising on Facebook.”

She said the launch was timely as waste collectors were being required by EU directives to provide brown bins by March 2015.

The founders targeted individual SupeValu stores, and when they had sold to 20, they went to Musgrave Group and asked for a central listing. “We are now in 100 SuperValu stores as well as some independents. We also have a website and 20% of our turnover comes from online sales,” said Ms Fingleton.

Obeo boxes retail in shops for €3.85 for a pack of five and €2.50 for three.

“It is a volume game and we knew from the beginning that we have to go into the UK to make this work.”

Once Obeo secured orders from Dunnes in 2014, it succeeded in getting €50,000 in Competitive Start Funding from Enterprise Ireland. In 2015, it was accepted on the DCU Ryan Academy Propeller programme and received €45,000 for a 7.5% stake in the firm.

This month, Enterprise Ireland named Obeo as a High Potential Start-Up client and provided investment of €150,00 to match €200,000 in private investment secured by the founders. Last month, the dragons on RTÉ’s Dragons’ Den programme declined to bite when offered a 10% share in the company for €100,000, saying the company had enough investors already.

Obeo has used its new funding to take on a fourth staff member, rebrand and draw up a marketing strategy for the UK. As Ireland prepares to pay for waste by weight in July, paying less per kilo for brown waste than ordinary waste, Ms Fingleton expects the composting rate and Obeo’s sales to go up.

She also has her sights on the 12.2m UK households with brown bins. “Some 60% of these are ABC1 demographic with higher incomes which is our key target market.”

At present, she says the yuck factor and the smell of decaying waste food is the biggest obstacle to getting people to compost more, but she believes that the Obeo box can help overcome this.


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