Replenysh, Mark Armen’s southern California-based company, works with some of the world’s biggest brands by helping them to rethink and reinvigorate their recycling programs.
Armen has been in the waste management industry for eight years, but he knew from a young age that this was the field for him. He launched Replenysh to further his personal mission of giving back and developing sustainable and cost-effective solutions that reduce contamination while making recycling programs more accessible and effective. He also created the Bait Tank, a cigarette receptacle that can be placed in public areas such as the beach.
He was named as one of the recipients of Waste360’s 40 Under 40 awards. In this interview, Armen discusses how current recycling systems need work and how he plans to revamp them with Replenysh.
Waste360: What services does Replenysh offer and what types of clients does it serve?
Mark Armen: Replenysh is a software company that’s helping brands retrieve used products from their customers. Brands are under a lot of pressure from either the government or their customer base to take responsibility for their products throughout the entire lifecycle of their products. You can see that in terms such as “extended producer responsibility” or “product stewardship,” but brands don’t have an effective means to make that happen. On top of that, they don’t really have a business incentive to make that happen. That’s what I do. I show brands the business incentive of doing it, and then I help them do it.
We are working with one of the top three beverage companies in the U.S. when it comes to beverage containers; some coffee chains when it comes to coffee cups; some retailers when it comes to fiber; and some liquor brands when it comes to glass.
Waste360: What did you do before founding Replenysh?
Mark Armen: In 2008, I was the number two employee at a company started in California called GreenOps. It was purchased by Waste Management, and we were rolling out these massive reverse vending machines in front of retail locations to help brands such as Nestlé Waters North America and PepsiCo increase the amount of materials that they were recovering from their customer base.
I had just gotten out of business school and I wanted to get into the environmental sustainability space. I’d been obsessed, for the last decade, with using good business as a tool to drive environmental change. That’s why I went to business school.
I was really excited to hook up with the team. We rolled out thousands of these kiosks across the United States, working with Whole Foods, Rite Aid, Hewlett Packard, PepsiCo and Nestlé Waters. I learned the value of brand, and how brands have a huge opportunity to motivate their customer base to really make a difference and to recover more clean materials.
I continued to work at Waste Management [after GreenOps, which became Greenopolis] was acquired. Then, Waste Management divested us to Recyclebank, which is another innovative recycling start-up out of New York.
Waste360: What made you want to start your own business?
Mark Armen: I knew that I would have to start my own business to drive the system change that is necessary. I started that education at GreenOps. I worked with some local recycling companies, got my hands dirty, and experimented with some new solutions to recover beverage containers outside of single stream materials.
I went to a lot of conferences, and tried to educate myself about the current system, and tried to unpack the current system to see why we recycle barely anything in this country. We need a complete system change in this country in terms of how we recover materials. Right now, we recover materials in the same manner that we recover trash and that’s never going to get us to where we need to be. If recycling and waste is really resource then why do we treat it like trash?
Single-stream recycling has done a great job to increase recycling rates, but it’s also increased contamination rates drastically. There was a report out [recently] talking about how cities are continually challenged with contamination rates. You have contamination rates going up and you have customer confusion going up.
I’ve been really obsessed with the circular economy. How do we create a system that keeps materials locked in and that helps brands retain the materials for their use and manufacturing? How do we change the experience for the customer? Why do you have to take a different action when it comes to recycling your clothes vs. recycling electronics vs. recycling a glass bottle? Every one of those products requires a different type of flow or user experience. It’s 2017. Why is that? The industry has created a system for their benefit not necessarily for the benefit of the customer.
Waste360: You said that you were obsessed with the industry before you got into it, when did you develop this interest?
Mark Armen: It started for me when I was a young kid. I grew up in California, which is a bottle bill state. I would spend my Saturdays crushing cans in the garage.
As I grew up, I started to learn the impact of plastic pollution on our oceans. I would walk the beach of southern California and I would pick up bottle caps and plastic straws and cigarette butts. I just kept following it. I followed the bottle caps and how they landed in birds’ stomachs and what they did to our food chain. I thought there’s got to be a better way.
Then, too, it’s a massive business opportunity. We’ve done an amazing job of creating the first half circle of our economy, where we get it from manufacturing to household or to business, but if you think about it, we still have a whole second half of our economy to build. What an amazing opportunity for all the jobs that can be created and all the innovation that could come from creating the second half of an economy. This is just not some tree hugger environmental movement, this is an economic movement.
Waste360: What do you wish the industry would improve over the next five years?
Mark Armen: I think the industry has to start thinking about the customer experience.
Waste360: What’s next for Replenysh?
Mark Armen: We are trying to do two things: help brands meet their recycling and recovery goals by giving them an effective mechanism to do that logistically and also giving them a lucrative business incentive to do it. For consumers, we are trying to change the experience.
We’re trying to drive behavior change by making it a delightful experience. We will be rolling out a pilot program in southern California to start servicing households with pick-up of recyclables this summer. We are partnering with one of the largest beverage companies in the U.S.
Waste360: What makes waste management a great industry for young people?
Mark Armen: If you want to be with an industry that is economically viable, where you can build a career that is exciting and dynamic there’s no better industry. In addition, if you want to change the world from a social standpoint, from an environmental standpoint, from a community standpoint, it’s all encapsulated within this industry. Everything touches it—from pollution to climate change to social justice to jobs to wildlife conservation—it all has to do with the recycling space, if you really think about it.