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How the Swap-o-Matic is reducing waste, plus five other vending machines making the world a better place

By Rachel England Wednesday 09 October 2013


Traditional vending machines are the beacon of consumerism: you put money in, then you take an item out. They’re designed purely to sell stuff (stuff that usually comes wrapped in plastic, and needs refrigeration). Could they ever contribute to a more sustainably-minded society?

Enter the Swap-o-Matic. The brainchild of American arts graduate Lina Fenequito, the Swap-o-Matic puts an entirely new spin on the vending machine concept. Instead of putting money in to obtain an item, you have to donate an item you no longer want. And the items up for grabs aren’t chocolate bars or soft drinks, but items from other people, which could be anything from scarves, DVDs, ornaments, books, jewellery, artworks, even poems!

It works on the principles of bartering, except all the hassle of bartering itself is removed. Simply peek inside one of the machine’s 13 cubicles and if you see something you fancy, it’s yours in exchange for something you no longer want. All ideas of ‘value’ and ‘worth’ are off the table, too, as the Swap-o-Matic operates on the assumption that value is subjective: an item you need has value, whereas one you don’t has none. Every item in the machine ‘costs’ one credit, and every item donated ‘earns’ one credit. You don’t even have to do a straight swap, a lot of people simply enjoy the act of giving.

It’s hoped that the Swap-o-Matic will inspire people to rethink their consumption habits and get into the routine of reusing stuff, instead of buying new items or simply discarding old ones, all the while delivering the ‘quick-fix’ and instant gratification that shopping brings. Less waste, more fun!

You can learn more about the Swap-o-Matic here (sadly, it looks like it’ll be busy in the States for the foreseeable). In the meantime, though, check out these other cool vending machines that are turning their energy-guzzling, consumerist reputations on their heads and helping make the world a better place.


The one that grows vegetables without sunlight

Vegetables need sunlight to grow, right? Not anymore! This Japanese vending machine, aka the Chef’s Farm, is able to grow 60 heads of lettuce a day using fluorescent light bulbs only. Obviously it’s not ideal in terms of energy consumption, but could it address the growing global food challenge? Find out more here.


The one that keeps drinks cool without using energy

One of the biggest gripes with vending machines is their energy consumption, but Coca-Cola and Fuji have addressed that by developing a machine that can operate without power for up to 16 hours a day, reducing energy use by 95%. Find out more here.


The one that turns plastics into fashion

Fashion and environmental-awareness went hand-in-hand at this year’s New York Fashion Week, thanks to a smart vending machine that dispensed a limited edition designer T-shirt – made from recycled plastic fabric – in exchange for a plastic bottle. Find out more here.


The one that turns waste into treats

Already well-established in Australia, Envirobank’s ‘reverse vending machines’ allow consumers to deposit plastics, glass and aluminium containers into machines located in public spaces, and earn points in return. These points can then be spent on all kinds of lovely treats from their Envirostore. Now that’s an incentive to recycle! Find out more here.

Seed bombs

The one that dispenses seed bombs

‘Seed bombs’ sounds like a dubious name, but you’d be doing the world a favour by detonating a few! Made of clay, compost and seeds, these little balls are designed to be thrown into barren and neglected urban areas, transforming them into colourful, natural areas. And this smart machine dispenses them like candy! Find out more here.

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