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DiFOLD Aims to Sell its Foldable Reusable Bottles to Packaging Majors

DiFOLD’s Radina Popova and Petar Zaharinov sell their collapsible bottle to corporations, a few outdoor retailers, and direct to consumers online. As the two partners prepare to launch their second product, they also are looking further ahead, trying to figure out how to break into the packaging industry, huge coffee shop chains like Starbucks, and other far-reaching retailers with plastic reduction goals that have begun sizing up refillable container models.

Arlene Karidis

February 7, 2024

6 Min Read
DiFOLD

Bulgarian-based DiFOLD has joined the movement to slow the tide of the roughly million single-use plastic bottles sold every minute, then tossed as soon as they’re empty (United Nations). But the startup’s two cofounders, an architect and former ad agency exec, have a unique twist. Their innovation borrows on the principal of a Japanese paper-folding art.

Branded as the Origami Bottle, it’s made of biobased material and folds down to 10 to 20 percent of its original size. It stands up through thousands of uses, is of food-grade, and FDA and EU approved.

DiFOLD’s Radina Popova and Petar Zaharinov sell their collapsible bottle to corporations, a few outdoor retailers, and direct to consumers online. As the two partners prepare to launch their second product, they also are looking further ahead, trying to figure out how to break into the packaging industry, huge coffee shop chains like Starbucks, and other far-reaching retailers with plastic reduction goals that have begun sizing up refillable container models.

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Popova and Zaharinov actually thought of targeting major retailers and consumer packaged goods companies from the get-go. But while they had no problem piquing interest from a few heavyweights like Procter & Gamble and ALDI they fast realized they had more work to do to prove their concept to this market.

“The packaging industry is dominated by big players. You are a team of two and can’t enter this huge market easily,” Zaharinov says.

Though they are moving along following a few years of R&D, some bootstrapping, and a crowdfunding campaign appealing to sustainably minded people on the go. It raised enough cash to pay all their production costs in a few hours while drawing about 10,000 consumers to their website for more information and to sign up for early bird pricing.

The bottle, which holds 25 ounces of water (and other noncarbonated liquids) is designed for frequent flyers, commuters, hikers, runners, and anyone else with an active life.

The outdoor sports retailers who stock the bottles, like German chain Globetrotter, are an obvious sales outlet. Many of them already sold collapsible products and thought the sleek, compact containers to be an interesting addition.

Corporations like that it’s a novel, engravable gift idea to replace the ordinary notebooks and coffee mugs they find in catalogues. They are on the hunt for something useful (and in this case easy to carry around at events) that will also leave an impression on their employees and clients who care about sustainability, Popova says.

She and Zaharinov not only hope to someday partner directly with large coffee chains, but companies like 2GoCup and RECUP, two large European players that operate deposit return systems.

“We see 2GoCup and RECUP as advancing reuse models, and we aim to find a way to launch pilots [working with them] at large scale so our product can be tested in this space,” Popova says.

With a degree in innovation and entrepreneurship and experience creating digital campaigns for big brands, she brings her business and marketing savvy to the table. Zaharinov, a designer and inventor, brings his creative juices and builders’ mind.

In 2013 he was researching kerigami, an art that’s similar to origami.

“I began only with the idea to make something.  I wasn’t sure exactly what yet. But kerigami was an interesting principal, so I started to make patterns,” he recalls.

Along the way he learned of origami, which intrigued him more. He found no functional, foldable products on the market leveraging this process, but as he researched industries to pitch the ideas he eventually came up with, he learned those ideas were too new.

“You have a revolutionary invention, but either the market is not ready [to receive it], or the production industry is not ready [to manufacture it].

“This is when you have to decide to become an entrepreneur to make it happen yourself,” Zaharinov says.

He set to work to finetune his packaging concept and brought in Popova to help bring it online. They had been working together on other projects where he made modular walls for exhibitions and foldable petitions for offices. They joined an accelerator program called Climate-KIC for clean-tech startups that sent them on their way in this brand new direction.

Her career in corporate advertising had lost its luster for her.

“I wanted to be a part of a smaller company but with a big impact. When Petar asked me to help him develop DiFOLD I was open for new opportunities. It sounded intriguing and I saw different potential applications of foldable designs for many industries,” Popova says.

It’s not the first foldable alternative to single-use plastic water bottles. But unlike competing options, the Origami Bottle is a copolyester partially made from plant material—byproducts of rapeseed oil—using injection molding. It’s a rigid and sturdier product, according to Envalior, who manufactures the biobased thermoplastic for DiFOLD. An internal lifecycle analysis showed the bottle has half the carbon footprint of silicone and other popular materials for collapsibles.

“DiFold’s foldable technology, combined with the durability and flexibility of our Arnitel Eco product, gives consumers a sustainable bottle solution. Important with these kinds of innovations is the correct material choice and technical support to make the design work, so that our customers can reach the desired benefits of their product,” says Pim Janssen, marketing manager at Envalior.

The bottles are not cheap at $39 a piece, including shipping. Popova and Zaharinov are exploring other materials that are not as high end, which they believe will be a must to compete in the refillable packaging market.

While reusable models are gaining traction, like almost all concepts aiming to be disruptive game changers, there is plenty to be ironed out. In a recent report McKinsey concluded that reuse models can add costs to the system and increase the use of fossil in terms of transport and energy, among drawbacks.

The authors go on to say operators must exceed 20 rotations to achieve emissions reductions and that for takeaway food packaging, it could be as high as 200 rotations.

Therefore, they conclude, “Using reliable and lasting materials as well as ensuring a high number of returns via incentives and harmonized communication will be necessary to make reusability an economically and environmentally efficient solution.”

The DiFOLD partners are optimistic they’ve got a shot at excelling in the evolving refillable models space, specifically catering to the packaging industry.

They’ve got one leg up in that their foldable design works with almost any shape and container, opening the technology up to multiple applications while offering consumers convenience and saving companies in shipping costs and emissions. What carries the most weight for the two entrepreneurs is their potential to turn the tide on plastic waste.

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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