In this episode, we talk to Hannah Chung of Muuse to learn more about their smart system of reusable takeaway food and drink containers.
JJ (the host of the Understory Podcast): Welcome to The Understory Podcast. We're here to highlight innovations and innovators that are making a big difference in creating a sustainable world. Today, we are highlighting Muuse. Here with us, we have Hannah Chung. Hannah, welcome to The Understory Podcast. We're very excited to hear about Muuse, so why don’t you tell us about the company.
Hannah Chung: Thank you so much for having us and featuring us, we’re really, really grateful for it. I am part of the Muuse team, and it's short for ‘multiple use’. We are a smart system of take-away food and drink containers, such as coffee cups and food boxes. We have an app where you can scan to borrow one of these products at a participating cafe within a system and then you can return it at any cafe on our map as well.
JJ: That's super cool and thank you for demystifying the name Muuse, how it actually stands for multiple use, and it certainly speaks to your mission. What is the business model today and how do you operate this network of cafes or organizations that use Muuse products?
Hannah: We currently operate in Singapore and San Francisco, two main cities that we focus on, and we have a network of cafes that we approach to get on our map and provide our products within their cafes. In Singapore, we have over 40 outlets who are involved and our partners. How we make money is essentially we have a subscription model. When you download our app, you can pay a subscription on a monthly or annual basis and then you have access to borrow our products across the city.
JJ: So does the consumer pay or the organization and cafes pay?
Hannah: The consumers pay. It's a consumer subscription model. What we ask of each cafe is that they stock our products and then they clean when someone returns a product to their location. Actually, it's free packaging for our cafes and all of our partners. As an agreement, they have to clean all the products as per restaurant dining standards.
JJ: Got it. If I'm a consumer in Singapore, can you just walk me and the audience through how it works? I walk into a cafe and I want to buy coffee, or salad, or noodles -- how does it work?
Hannah: We have an app where you sign up to register an account. Once you set up, then you go to a participating cafe and you have an option to borrow a Muuse Cup or a Muuse food box. You request that when you're ordering your food. The cafe or restaurant staff would show you our product and there's a QR code attached to our products. Then, you scan that code and the transaction is as normal. You buy your food or your drink and then you have seven days to return the product.
JJ: I can return the product at any cafe, and not just that particular cafe where I originally bought the food?
Hannah: Correct, we want to make it as convenient as possible for people to do this, we want to increase the convenience and make it a lot easier for people to do the right thing. We're trying to get as many cafes on board within a city, so that maybe that journey from home to work to your office and or to another location, we've closed that loop. How we equate it is similar to the Citi Bikes (bikeshare program in NYC). We want to make these points of location a part of your daily routine as much as possible.
JJ: I love that analogy of the Citi Bikes. How do you measure impact or how do you communicate the impact to the cafes and to the consumers?
Hannah: I think it's quite a simple message of what we're trying to save here -- we're trying to save single-use disposable items. We are able to track all of the items that we've saved so far as a company. Since we started in 2018, we started providing reusable tableware for events, large scale festivals, and other events. We've saved over 45,000 single use items so far and it's growing every day with the city model in Singapore and growing in San Francisco. We will get back running in the next few months where we're measuring that impact every day and it's quite a simple thing to measure.
JJ: I have to ask you this because I know you are based in Asia even though the team is global. Do you think a country like Singapore is an early adopter of Muuse if you have that comparison?
Hannah: It's an interesting one. We decided to start in Asia, mainly because that's where most of the problem is in terms of plastic waste and a lot of the waste issues. It's really where we wanted to begin our journey. We actually originally started in Bali. We've also done a few projects in the US in terms of universities, and in Hong Kong as well. But, Singapore is somewhere where the Singaporean government is very supportive in terms of reducing that single use waste. We do see a lovely community there that does want to make a difference and because of the size of the city -- it’s not a very large city -- it's been quite an easy entry point for us to get started and to get our system going.
JJ: In terms of the product itself, what is the material used for the product?
Hannah: For our coffee cups, it is a double-walled, insulated stainless steel. We have a medium size and large size as well. For our food boxes, there is weak fiber material as the base and then there's a natural bamboo lid that goes on it. Product choice has always been a difficult one. Throughout this whole journey, since we've started, we've been trying to find a product that fits what we're trying to do. Essentially, we're trying to replace a single-use item and make it reusable. Currently, nothing quite like that exists in the market in the terms that it has to be lightweight, stackable, and easy to clean. We've stuck with simple materials like stainless steel because it's easy to clean and many cafes can take that on. With the foodbox, it's also quite difficult to understand. It has to be the right size and shape for most cafes and restaurants. We've gone for one one universal size here. However, we're continually finding, upgrading, and seeing what we can do with our product.
JJ: I think coffee cups, tea cups, and food boxes are also high frequency used items so from an impact perspective, it can be profound. As you scale into more cafes, more restaurants, and more cities, that's great to hear. Hannah, what has the team learned about this journey so far?
Hannah: I think one of the main lessons we've learned is that starting a reuse project is not easy. I think we were all incredibly naïve when we first began this journey, and if you think of it like the milkman model or like a city model, it seems kind of simple, it seems very straightforward. However, actually building systems within -- we've done pilot programs at a University, we've done it for a shopping mall, office buildings, and trying to build a system for each of these is actually very different. Learning to really focus our efforts on one system, one type of product, and developing our app to go with that has been a real journey. Simplifying the whole system has been a major learning point for us.
JJ: I love that and I totally agree with that. In our experiences, in a circular economy, designing what that circularity looks like for a particular complex system is so critical and you just gave quite a compelling example of that in understanding the system that you're working with and changing behaviors through innovation. Last question: where can people buy Muuse or find Muuse? In Singapore, they can go to 40 cafes. The more appropriate question is if a franchise or a brand wants to get an inside look or pilot with Muuse, how can they find you?
Hannah: In terms of the cities that we operate, we don't sell our products. You're given access to borrow our products as much as you can and as much as you want. Within Singapore, we have over 40 cafes. We are partnering with different companies in cities across the world at the moment to build these citywide model systems. We're partnering in terms of Indonesia, a company called Nview, who then created a system, and we provide the tech that goes along with it -- the software platform.
The simple answer to that is to let us know. Contact us at muuse.io and we're happy to talk to you, wherever you are in the world. If you want to bring a system like that to your city, we could start a partnership, we're pretty open to that. We’re almost two years into our journey now, and having had many conversations of how a system like this works, we're pretty open to opening it up in terms of a software platform where products are produced closer to the city, and then we provide that tech that goes with it.
JJ: Fantastic. The mission of Muuse is the future of multiple use and the smart system of reusable takeaway containers. For consumers, we can download your app. We can find your Instagram as well. For brands and cafes, reach out to Hannah! Hannah, thank you so much for sharing your journey and we look forward to seeing Muuse in more cities and cafes.
Hannah: Thank you so much.