Re-use scheme uses RFID tags to eliminate single use plastic and paper cups

A British café operator who set out to find an alternative to single-use plastic or paper coffee cups has helped to develop a new re-use system that he claims to be the most simple and cost-effective to date. Alasdair Hood and his team originally raised £350,000 from angel investors in Essex to launch Delete Cups. The system was successfully trialled in the two pop-up cafés he ran in Braintree Village in the county. He has recently sold these to focus on the reuse project.

Initially Hood joined forces with project manager Dominic Brady and software engineer Tommy Herbert to develop the system using equipment from RFID specialist CoreRFID to create a ‘unique’ re-use system.

With current re-use schemes, according to Hood, customers usually have to download an app, register their details, pay a deposit on the cup and then apply online to reclaim their money once they have returned it, or go back to the point of origin. The Delete Cups system consists of RFID tagged, reusable beverage cups and readers deployed at cafés, with software managing the sales and return transactions.

The company says no customer details are required and the deposit is automatically returned to the customer’s account when they drop the cup into any collection point Each cup contains an RFID chip and the system uses software that links this with the transaction at the till. The barista simply scans the cup when taking the customer’s payment and once the used cup is deposited at the collection point the chip is detected and the payment is automatically refunded.

“Around 2.5 billion coffee cups are thrown away yearly in the UK alone, with terrible environmental consequences. The problem is that single-use cups are so convenient. While people like the idea of recycling, current systems involve so much time and effort that it deters all but the most committed,” explained Hood. “We set out to develop a reuse system that would offer the same convenience as single use. Delete Cups’ system is friction-free for consumers and baristas and helps reduce vendor costs. We hope to play our part in eliminating single cups and powering the transition to a reuse economy.”

Richard Harrison of CoreRFID praised the system’s utilization of RFID technology, saying it is “Ideal for reuse or recycling applications because of its ability to track items and automate processes. It is possible to design completely friction-free systems. In this case, there is no need for humans to handle and log each cup because the readers will automatically detect them and the RFID tags are robust enough to withstand boiling coffee or dishwasher cycles.”

Hood’s company set the price of the solution—including reusable cups, embedded RFID tags, readers and software to manage transactions and returns—at 50 percent of the price of simply buying cups that are thrown away. That would mean that café managers would no longer buy any disposable cups. Cafés in the scheme are given polypropylene plastic cups with the built in RFID tags. The cups are manufactured by sustainable packaging company Bockatech and can last at minimum 500 wash cycles, according to the manufacturer.

By the time a reusable cup is provided to a customer four times there is a net positive impact on the environment, says Hood. The system is now being deployed by several cafés in the UK.

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