Recycling for the Future

Background

With over 800 million plastic containers, bottles and cans in worldwide circulation at any given moment and approximately three fourths of them ending up in landfills, raising the recycling rate is a major environmental concern. Not only are landfills harmful for the environment, but the raw materials and energy consumed in manufacturing bottles exacerbates the problem and further depletes natural resources. While many industrialized countries struggle to increase recycling, Norway has managed to get ninety percent of consumers to return their used drinking bottles for recycling in return for a cash refund. Norway’s success has been made possible in part by the ingenuity of two brothers, Petter and Tore Planke, who started Tomra Systems ASA (TOMRA) in 1972 to market their reverse vending machine innovation.

Invention


A TOMRA Reverse Vending Machine (Photo: Lars Kristian Flem)

In 1971, the owner of one of Oslo’s biggest supermarkets approached Petter, then a salesperson of labeling and pricing equipment in the supermarket industry, with a problem. Under Norwegian law, supermarkets are required to refund customers for empty bottles, but in the early 1970s they were finding it difficult to cope with the large quantities of returned bottles. The owner needed some kind of automated processing system to stop supermarkets from drowning in empty bottles. With no such technology available at the time, Petter told the owner that he could ask his brother Tore, at the time an engineer developing the world’s first automated navigation systems, for help.

After a series of meetings with a group of supermarket owners and bottlers, the brothers came up with the design for the first prototype of a reverse vending machine. Their design had a single hole which could be used to return all types of bottles and a printer that issued receipts for the amount of refund due. The technology behind the design was an automated recognition system, which could differentiate all types of bottles. With their invention in hand, they pitched a proposal to the supermarket owners and bottlers: if the group covered all costs of development, the brothers would work for free. A deal was struck, and in January 1972 the first hand-made TOMRA prototype reverse vending machine was installed in a supermarket in Asker, Norway. Convinced of the value of their invention, the brothers started to take orders from other supermarkets. Their initial goal of fifteen sales was met in just one month, and in April 1972 they officially quit their jobs and launched TOMRA. By the end of 1972, the company had installed 29 machines throughout Norway and was well on its way to an international launch.

Research and Development

Ever since inventing the world’s first automated container recognition system, TOMRA has maintained a leading position by consistently developing new technologies through its comprehensive research and development (R&D) program. The company’s R&D efforts focus on its core expertise: material recognition, material processing, machine control, systems software and industrial design.

The material recognition R&D group works on the technology that is central to any reverse vending machine: the way in which containers are identified by a machine. Quickly and accurately distinguishing between thousands of different products is a complicated task. In response to this complexity, the company developed its patented container recognition technology called Sure Return™. Sure Return features a unique video surveillance system that provides constant monitoring and control of objects inserted into the machine, providing recognition, security and sorting capabilities that have yet to be matched. This technology delivers immediate object registration, precise shape recognition and a comprehensive antifraud system, which prevents attempts to cheat the machine by pulling the object back out and reinserting it again for multiple refunds.

Closely linked to material recognition is material processing, so TOMRA also provides solutions for optimizing the handling and logistics process of materials collected through the company’s products. This includes developing solutions for material sorting, transport, compaction and storage systems.


The TOMRA Reverse vending machine as filed in PCT application PCT/NO2009/000247 (PATENTSCOPE® search)

Two further R&D areas that are essential to TOMRA’s products are its machine control and systems software groups. These groups focuses on the interface and mechanics of the company’s automated products and the software that runs them. The last R&D group is the design team, which plays a vital role in the company’s product development and is of strategic importance to its continued success. This group works with all other R&D groups throughout the entire product development process, working to create a design that harmonizes the technology with environmental and aesthetic considerations.

Patents

The Planke brothers knew they had a winning invention on their hands and applied for their first patent with the Norwegian Industrial Property Office (NIPO). Since this initial patent, TOMRA has developed a significant intellectual property (IP) library which they continue to protect with patents. It has filed patent applications for inventions related to over forty of its technologies. Beyond domestic filings, the company owns over fifty patents or patent applications with the European Patent Office (EPO), and has filed over thirty international patent applications under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) system.

Trademarks

Because the company’s name is associated with quality products that help preserve the environment, brand recognition is important. In 2007 the company filed a registration under the international Madrid system for protection of its name and “Helping the World Recycle” slogan. Because the United States is a large market for the company, it has also registered a trademark for its name and slogan with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in December 2007. In total, the company has registered over ten trademarks with the USPTO, and in 1999 it registered a trademark with for its popular rePLANET recycling centers.

Industrial Designs

Obtaining IP rights (IPRs) for the company’s designs is also critical to its success. It has spent significant time and money on R&D to create products that are acclimated for use in specific environments, are easy to use and pleasing on the eye. Therefore TOMRA has seven industrial design registrations with the Trademarks and Designs Registration Office of the European Union (OHIM) for its reverse vending machines and containers.


TOMRA has installed over 50,000
reverse vending machines
worldwide to encourage the
recycling of beverage containers.
(Photo: TOMRA)

Commercialization

TOMRA’s business is divided into three categories: collection, material handling and industrial processing. The collection technology is the cornerstone of the company, and the Planke brothers initially manufactured their reverse vending machine by hand and marketed themselves through direct sales. Today the company’s products are produced in modern factories, and besides the core product (which has been continually updated with new technology), it also sells recycling kiosks. The company markets its products both directly and through distributors, and has over 50,000 products installed in 55 countries.

The company’s material handling arm handles the pickup, transportation and processing of used containers in North America. The company’s industrial processing activities are handled by its two subsidiaries: TiTech and Orwak. TiTech’s innovative technology provides a fast and cost-effective means of sorting a wide variety of materials for recycling. After sorting, Orwak provides a comprehensive range of waste compactors and baling systems that enable efficient handling and transportation of these materials. Orwak products are installed in over 45,000 locations worldwide and the subsidiary company is recognized as a leading provider in its industry.


A TOMRA Reverse Vending Machine with two buttons:
one for a refund voucher, and one to make a donation
(Photo: Lars Plougmann)

Social Issues

As the company grows, its innovative products have the possibility to make an even greater impact on recycling and the environment. Packaging material is often made from attractive and valuable materials (such as aluminum, steel and glass), and while they are recyclable, most end up in landfills. To lessen the environmental impact and make it easier for people to recycle, TOMRA’s products are helping to recover the resource and monetary value of packaging and other used materials. Each year TOMRA products collect and recycle about 30 billion used beverage containers worldwide, which represent around three percent of the world’s annual consumption.

Instead of ending up in landfills, the company is recycling waste, passing on monetary value to consumers and helping the environment. TOMRA’s services, such as those provided through its subsidiary Orwak, can compact 85 million metric tons of waste a day. This translates into a savings of 700,000 liters of fuel per day which would otherwise be needed to dispose of these materials. Instead, that fuel is saved and the materials are put to further use through recycling. It is estimated that TOMRA’s products and operations during one year save more than ten million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. To put it into greater perspective, this is around twenty percent of the total emissions of Norway.


Reverse vending machine stations are now common in supermarkets throughout Europe (Photo: Ian Kennedy)

Business Results

Starting out in a small town in Norway, the idea for a reverse vending machine has transformed TOMRA from a small, two-person endeavor to an international company spread over 55 countries. By 2000, the company had over 1,700 employees working in 46 different markets. Orders keep coming in, and in 2006 there were over 8,000 orders from customers in Germany alone. By the second quarter of 2010, the company enjoyed revenues of over 1.6 billion Norwegian Kroner (kr), with an operating profit of kr 220 million. TOMRA has also been recognized for its efforts incorporating new technology with its innovations. In 2004, the company received the Qualcomm 3G cdmA-List Award from the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association of the United States for using wireless technology to monitor its reverse vending machines.

From Waste to Innovation

Starting with an innovative solution to a specific need, TOMRA has developed products that go beyond turning a profit. They give something back to the consumer and this gives an incentive for people to recycle. The positive effect of TOMRA’s products on the environment is already clear, and this will only magnify as their business grows and more people recycle.