After speaking to store owners and meeting with the Empty Bottle Committee (comprised of breweries, bottlers, and grocers’ trade associations) the brothers identified four key elements needed to help with the issue: control, convenience, reliability, and flexibility. Tore and Petter believed a completely automated return process was the answer. They set about creating a machine that could take the problem off retailers’ hands, both literally and figuratively.
With a background in cybernetics and electronics, Tore’s goal was to design the machine with the best available technology. He settled on photocells combined with conveyor and foam roller elements to ensure accuracy and convenience.
The first prototype (squeezed into the back of Petter’s Renault 16, just hours after the birth of Tore’s daughter) was installed in Aage Fremstad’s store on January 2nd, 1972. It was an instant hit, with almost 2,000 bottles per day passing through the machine over the next two weeks.
Demand for this fully-automated reverse vending machine (RVM) quickly grew, prompting the Planke brothers to focus their attentions on reverse vending technology full time, with the launch of TOMRA as a company in spring of 1972. As well as solving a fundamental problem for retailers, the Planke brothers were driven by a meaningful idea: helping the world recycle.
To install that machine and to learn that the customers loved it, and to hear the supermarket owner say ‘This is my best investment’ – then we understood, TOMRA had a future.”
1981 – First fully-automated crate machines
The need for reverse vending innovation did not slow down. Europe saw demand for a machine that could accept whole crates of bottles, accurately identifying the containers and reliably registering the refund. The TOMRA team developed the first fully-automated crate machine, using an advanced ultrasound scanner to register what kind of bottles, and how many, were in each crate.
1983 – The first RVM for cans
In 1982, Sweden announced it would introduce cans to its deposit return system. TOMRA had just six months to create a machine that could handle cans before a government-mandated trial took place. Tore and his team introduced several new RVM elements: the ability to read specific information in a can barcode; a scale to determine whether a can was full or empty; a crusher to flatten the cans; and a metal detector to ascertain if the can was made of aluminum. TOMRA secured the major contract in Sweden with its “Can Can” model (see image).
1990 – Laser-based crate recognition
The time for RVMs that could only recognize glass bottles was long over; now the market demanded machines that could do it all. At the start of the 1990s, TOMRA was the only manufacturer in the world to offer machines that accepted all types of beverage packaging. TOMRA’s flagship 400 Multi RVM was designed to handle crates in addition to all kinds of bottles and cans, using laser-based recognition. This method can still be found today in TOMRA’s “True Vision” RVMs.
1997 – Bottles lying down and unique shape recognition technology
As new, lightweight plastic bottles became the norm, so too did the issue of the containers toppling over in RVMs. Spotting another problem to solve, the TOMRA team created a machine that could accept bottles lying down instead of standing up. The simple but effective solution became the TOMRA T600, which launched TOMRA's 25th anniversary on 1 April. T600 also incorporated several innovations including a new container shape recognition system, built-in modem and an advanced graphics display. It introduced a more versatile and user-friendly platform that could easily be configured to meet the needs of a store.
Throughout these two first decades of the company, there was a continual focus on refining the technology to reduce cost and increase accuracy and flexibility. "Backroom" solutions (typically housed behind a wall, in retailers’ storage rooms) were also important in terms of improving compaction, accumulation and sorting. Establishing a single in-feed on machines where cans, plastic bottles and glass bottles could all be inserted was also ground-breaking.
Innovating into the future
Today, TOMRA continues to push boundaries when it comes to developing machines. In 2019, it took another leap forward in RVM development with the launch of the TOMRA R1 (with the R standing for Revolution), a multi-feed solution that allows over 100 containers to be emptied into the machine at once, rather than a recycler inserting them one by one. There was huge interest in TOMRA R1, even before its launch: the test phase saw recyclers arrive with trailers full of containers, drive 20 kilometers past other stores in order to use TOMRA R1, and a demonstration video uploaded to social media by one of the test stores reached 425,000 views.
TOMRA R1 takes TOMRA innovation back to a key principle set in the couple's early days: helping the world recycle. By transforming people’s recycling experience, they are motivated to recycle more, and to help save the planet, one bottle at a time. Or, in this case, more than 100 bottles at a time.
TOMRA's digital innovations also expanded the user experience for TOMRA R1, just a few months after TOMRA R1's launch. Users could now also step away from their TOMRA R1 recycling session and start shopping before their containers are even finished counting; this Express mode with TOMRA R1 is the first completely automated container recycling experience.
TOMRA R1 revolutionized and transformed the consumer recycling experience. Further innovating in this space, TOMRA R1 with Express returns is like the self-driving car of container recycling.
A culture of curiosity
Leading the way in innovation isn’t just benchmarked with awards, technological advances and “firsts”. TOMRA’s culture of curiosity and collaboration has been fostered since the 1970s. The Planke brothers instilled in their employees that constant improvement in the workplace, and not just in product development, fuelled a spirit of innovation.
TOMRA became a forward-thinking employer, creating an environment conducive to progress through measures such as longer lunch breaks, exercise during the workday, and an open-door policy. A collective sense of humor was encouraged, an element of anarchy was welcomed, and - most importantly - close communication between departments was celebrated.
In the 1990s, long before it was commonplace in business, TOMRA consulted its entire workforce to develop the mission and vision of the company, landing on five core values: personal initiative, innovation, integrity, fighting spirit and enthusiasm.
Today, the spirit of these values very much remains in the business’ current pillars: innovation, passion and responsibility. The TOMRA culture continues to inspire innovation in its team, encouraging them to dare to challenge the status quo, explore and share new ideas, and continuously advance improvement.
Today’s TOMRA team are proud to be the keepers of this innovative spirit, upon which the brothers established the business way back in 1972.
In the recent words of TOMRA's founders:
“I just love what I see in TOMRA today, and the way TOMRA is flourishing within this field. Better today than yesterday, but not as good as tomorrow.”