Green Living: Local startup Soapstand launches vending machines for liquid-soap and household-cleaner refills

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      Zero-waste living has gained considerable traction in Vancouver in recent years, with stores like the Soap Dispensary and Kitchen Staples (3718 Main Street) and Nada (675 East Broadway) offering plastic- and packaging-free refills on soaps, cooking oils, and more.

      But given the shops’ limited hours and their locations in Mount Pleasant, it's not always easy—or possible—for those committed to (or interested in) green living to access them. That’s why one local startup is hoping to bring household refills to the masses through a set of handy, zero-waste vending machines.

      Dubbed Soapstand, the Vancouver-based company produces what it bills as the world’s first automated liquid-refill station. The vending machines dispense ecofriendly personal-care and cleaning products, such as shampoo, Castile soap, and dish detergent, and offers reusable aluminum containers to those who need them.

      Users simply bring their own reusable containers or purchase aluminum ones from the machines, select their product of choice and their desired quantity on the touchscreen display, and watch as their vessel is filled. The dispensers accept debit and credit, and prices are comparable to what shoppers would pay at a zero-waste grocer or refill store.

      The vending-machine process takes no more than 12 seconds, estimates Soapstand cofounder Andy Chou, helping to reduce people’s consumption of single-use plastics while making a long-term sustainable lifestyle more feasible for residents. “Soapstand came from [this idea of] ‘How can we make our lives greener, but also have it be accessible and convenient?’ ” Chou explains by phone.

      Soapstand founders Andy Chou and Abner Tsai explain the method and thinking behind the company's automated liquid-refill stations.

      Launched in 2017, Soapstand operates units in four residential buildings in Vancouver, North Vancouver, and Burnaby. The startup owns the units, and they cost nothing for proprietors to run, explains Chou, making them a “no-brainer” and well-received among landlords and tenants alike. “A lot of them [building owners] have their own green initiatives going on,” he says, “and, a lot of the time, we fit under that initiative.”

      The machines’ success in these areas has led Soapstand to initiate a crowdfunding campaign today (August 27) to aid in commercialized manufacturing. The campaign has a “flexible” target of $40,000, which will go toward equipment purchases, and the production and testing of different prototypes, so that Soapstand may construct more vending machines, and ultimately, have them placed in more residential sites and various retail stores and grocers in Metro Vancouver.

      In addition, the startup hopes to introduce products like toothpaste to its dispensers, and eventually expand globally. (Chou shares that the company has fielded inquiries from as far away as Toronto, San Francisco, and Hong Kong since its launch.) The campaign will remain live for one month, with perks available to backers that pledge certain amounts. “Our vision is to eliminate single-use plastics in our category, which is home and personal care, forever,” states Chou.

      Above all, it’s about reducing our reliance on nonbiodegradable, disposable plastics, which take centuries to break down in our oceans and landfills, polluting wildlife and environments in the meantime. And making zero-waste living a task so easy, almost anyone can commit to it. “We need to not preach, but just embed green [elements] and sustainability into our everyday lives,” adds Chou.

      Follow Lucy Lau on Twitter @lucylau.