We know them all from photos: islands of plastic and garbage that accumulate in our oceans. Deep blue clouded by dirty brown and grey tones that extend on the water surface. For Christian Schiller , however, photos became tangible reality when he involuntarily went into close contact with the garbage carpets in the ocean on a sailing trip between Colombia and Panama. The trigger for him to dedicate himself to solving this problem with the means of entrepreneurship – and to digitize the plastics industry in the process.
The initial idea soon became reality: With the startup cirplus Christian has now created a global marketplace for circular plastics. The aim is to bring together supply and demand for recycled plastics on a single platform and thus improve the circulation of plastics in the future. In an interview with 5-HT, Christian reveals how this is to work and what advantages the platform offers companies.
The turning point
“It’s a horribly beautiful story that gave me the idea for cirplus,” recalls founder Christian Schiller. “After I was the first BlaBlaCar employee to set up the German location for what is now the world’s largest car-sharing platform – from launch to monetization – after more than four years, the moment came when I wanted to fulfill a life-long dream: a trip around the world. In July 2017 I started, after 6 months in South America I crossed over from Colombia to Panama by sailing boat.
On the second day at sea we had calm and I let my legs hang in the water. It was a dream. Then something hit me in my leg and the first thing I thought was a shark or something like that. Instead, it was a piece of plastic, harbinger of a big carpet of plastic and algae that we had to pass. Theoretically, almost everyone knows today that the increasing plastic pollution in the environment is a problem, but I was very affected by this immediate experience. It was the first time I experienced the scale of the crisis firsthand.”
From the first idea…
Besides consternation, the experience in Christian triggered the search for the causes. Christian didn’t want to simply set up a startup that organizes “clean-ups” on the beach or in the sea. Not only the symptoms, but the actual problem should be solved. From his first work experience in Houston, Texas, in the US oil industry, he knew what a technological and financial feat it takes to extract oil and produce plastics, among other things. The question then came to his mind: “How is it possible that this valuable plastic could end up as garbage in the ocean?
One of the main reasons: So-called “virgin plastic”, i.e. newly produced plastic, is still cheaper for companies than using old plastic. Sounds paradoxical, but it is so: Due to the long established supply chains in the petrochemical industry, it is relatively cheaper to produce virgin plastic than to use so-called plastic recyclates in mechanical or chemical recycling. So the goal for Christian was clear: “We need to reduce the transaction costs for recycled plastics in order to provide companies with a solid business case for switching from new to old goods wherever possible.
… to the search for the co-founder …
But let’s go a step backwards: When Christian returned to Germany in July 2018 from his trip around the world, he took part in the ‘Entrepreneur First’ business startup programme. “You have to think of it as speed dating for founders,” says Christian. “You apply as an individual with or without an idea and then find the complementary founder. Startups are particularly successful when the team of founders complements each other as much as possible,” reveals Christian.
This is how he met Volkan Bilici, who has over twenty years of experience in software development, including global market platforms and block chain applications. Christian himself originally studied international economics, politics and international law and brought the experience of BlaBlaCar with him. The foundation stone for cirplus was laid.
At ‘Entrepreneur First’, the two had to pitch their ideas to an audience once a week. They also got in touch with numerous players from the industry at that time: “That was really good, because ‘Entrepreneur First’ forced us to go outside with our idea and do a reality check right from the start.
… and the refinement of the business idea …
After his trip around the world, Christian already knew that his future company would have to deal with plastic waste. During his time at ‘Entrepreneur First’ he was able to take a closer look at the subject – and the structural reasons why plastic is poorly recycled.
“That’s where the business idea came from: If you want to make structural changes to the plastics crisis, then you have to change the economic conditions under which Virgin Plastic has been cheaper than used plastic up to now,” explains Christian, “because the infrastructure for producing Virgin Plastic already exists. That’s why a ton of new plastic often costs less in comparison to the old material – at least when it comes to higher quality plastic applications.”
In addition to these price and quality differences, there is a third finding: the comparatively low degree of digitisation in the plastics and recycling industry. Outdated technology is often used. “Until now, it was unthinkable to handle the purchase of plastics digitally. It is not uncommon for this to still be done over the telephone, Internet Explorer and the fax machine,” says Christian. However, with increasing public pressure and regulations, a lot of wind is blowing in both sectors. And it is in this change scenario that cirplus comes into play: “We aggregate the worldwide demand and supply for plastic waste and recyclates. This is not only practical and cost-efficient for everyone involved, but also sends the right signals for investments in the future-oriented recycling industry. Closing the plastics cycle is only possible with high-quality recycling technology.
… to the foundation of the own startup
In December 2018 Christian and Volkan finally dared to found their startup cirplus. The packaging law, which came into force in Germany on 01.01.2019, was already casting a shadow back then. It aims to ensure that all packaging on the market is recyclable and that the proportion of recycled plastics in packaging must increase. To this end, a kind of bonus system will be introduced for companies that make their packaging recyclable and use recycled materials.
With this regulatory tailwind, things then went steeply uphill for cirplus. The first prototype was launched in April 2019. With a pilot program and selected companies from the entire plastics value chain, the team then moved into the deeper development of the platform. The public release of the platform followed at the beginning of March 2020 and since then the platform has been available for unrestricted use. “Very important to us: We have formed alliances, but we are 100% independent. It is particularly important for a digital marketplace to be independent and neutral.” Above all, this means that the participating companies can be sure that their own transaction data will never end up with the competition.
A startup digitalizes the plastics industry
“Already today our platform has generated an enormous response – but of course not everything is ready yet, it can’t be at such an early stage and with the limited resources of a real startup. We are therefore successively developing further functionalities, and have recently strengthened our product team significantly despite Corona,” explains Christian. “As a company, you can search, find, negotiate, upload photos, upload data sheets, yes, ultimately conclude the entire contract via the platform without even having to pick up the phone or even a fax machine – but of course this is still possible if the customer wants it. We don’t force digital change on anyone, but we offer an intuitive and easy to understand introduction. “
This is where the special challenge Christian faces with his startup: to break through traditional customer behaviour in the plastics industry: “We are constantly confronted with arguments such as: ‘This is far too complex to be done digitally. Or: Mr. Schiller, the plastics trade is ‘people business’, not ‘digital business’. But we believe that the Corona crisis also offers a great opportunity here. At the moment, we should all be concentrating on dealing with the health effects of the crisis. After that, the work of cleaning up the economic distortions will begin – and in times of social distancing, digitalization can make an extremely important contribution to the recovery of the economy, especially in Germany with its strong SME economy.
That’s why we’re also involved in 5-HT, because ultimately it’s about digitizing a very analog business. And through digitization, we’re also making the economy a good deal more sustainable.”
Visions for the future – a world without plastic waste in the environment
Here we come full circle to the plastic carpets in the Caribbean, which led Christian to his ambitious corporate vision: “Our vision is: 100% recycling management for plastics – 100% circular plastics”, explains Christian, “This is our big goal. Cirplus acts as a digital catalyst that should lead to sustainable development in the plastics sector. We make it possible to recycle plastics several times – because the problem is not the plastic itself, but the plastic that is released into the environment. We want to become the first address in the world where you can find everything you need to know about advice and trade in circular plastics. And thus turn off the ‘plastic tap’ that is polluting our oceans and the environment more and more every year.