A Social Innovation Seed Fund Guest Blog: Meet BYO

This blog was written by Priscilla Lam and Angelica Tso, founders of BYO and recipients of SFU Social Innovation Seed Funding in 2020.

Every minute, Vancouver throws out an average of 258 disposable cups, amounting to over 130 million cups annually. Emissions from landfills likewise account for 20% of Canada’s national methane emissions—approximately 19Mt of CO2e.

On a macro level, we believe the disposable cup issue is a symptom of our throwaway culture that values personal convenience at the expense of negative social and environmental externalities—caused by a fundamental disconnect between people and the natural ecosystem that supports our livelihoods.

Current solutions to mitigate disposable cup waste include recycling, using compostable cups, and implementing cup surcharges. However, while these solutions are important, they fail to tackle the root cause of society’s throwaway mindset. We believe there is a gap and an opportunity to change the social norm, and we want to bridge this gap by advocating for an alternative to disposable convenience. 

One solution not leveraged enough, in our view, is encouraging consumers to bring their own cups to buy to-go drinks. Current incentives—such as small in-store discounts and cup surcharges—are minimal and struggle to bridge the connection between consumer action and the larger scope of the waste issue. From our interviews with over 70 cafe owners and customers in Metro Vancouver, we discovered that cafes can act as an important place to facilitate education around sustainability. On the customer end, we discovered that bring-your-own-cup habits are embraced but not institutionalized enough in a way that incentivizes it.

Globally, urban cores have seen a surge in disposable waste, from personal protective equipment (PPE) to takeout packaging, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A majority of our interviewees expressed concerns that the pandemic has made throwaway culture more challenging. Clearly, there is a need and desire for waste solutions in the midst of a pandemic. Our “new normal” calls for innovation to tackle the disposable waste issue. 

Our project—BYO—is a mobile app-based program that motivates individuals to bring their own cup through various mechanisms such as rewards and impact tracking. On top of incentivizing bring-your-own-cup behaviour, a portion of the usual cup discount will be allocated towards a tree-planting initiative. By incorporating tree planting, we seek to extend our impact beyond cup waste—encouraging customers and cafes alike to think bigger while sparking conversations around the larger collective role of consumer practices. The project is a unique combination of cup waste reduction, rewards, tree planting, and community building.

We made significant progress in Fall 2020. The conversations we had with local cafes and customers guided the design of the BYO program, and this past semester, we began app development. In collaboration with students from SFU Surge, a student club that provides hands-on learning opportunities in tech, we created our first mockups and learned a lot about the mobile app development process. Based on that experience, we began planning recruitment to bring on senior computer science and design students to create the first working iteration of the app.

We are excited about the future, and furthering development of BYO. Our hope is that this mobile app will normalize an alternative to the current status quo of wasteful consumption—concretizing environmentally-conscious habits that users can carry forward into other areas of their lives and within their communities.

To learn more about BYO, visit our website!

Are you working on a great social or environmental impact project and need some money to help get started? Embark and RADIUS have partnered to provide funding in amounts ranging up to $2,000, depending on project size and budget, to SFU students. Apply now!