By now, you know the problem: Nearly 250 billion single-use cups are used globally every year — most of which end up in a landfill — and the environmental, economic and social costs are mounting. And that’s just cups.
You also know the solution: In addition to recyclable and compostable alternatives, reuse models are quickly emerging as a fundamentally better alternative to single-use ones, not to mention that converting 20 percent of the world’s disposable plastic packaging into reusables is a $10 billion opportunity.
If only this were just a matter of procurement. Far more complex are the systems surrounding cups and other disposables: platform design; customer adoption; retail implementation; collection; sanitation; end-of-life management; and, of course, selecting the right cup itself. That’s before you get to sustainable materials and production methods.
Thanks to a new report by Closed Loop Partners, the path from conception to pilot and scale for a reusable and refillable packaging model — in this case the cup — has been spelled out to help you get started. It’s not a blueprint per se, but rather a collection of insights and learnings from the NextGen Consortium’s initial pilots with Starbucks and McDonald’s, done in collaboration with the design firm IDEO.
Here are some key takeaways to keep in mind when designing a new reuse system:
Design: Convenience, integration into existing systems and environmental impact must be aligned from the start, at the design phase. Consider the cup’s journey from sign-up and point of sale, to use at retail, customer handoff, point of return, washing and sanitizing, pickup and delivery. In-store inventory management (display and stackability of bulkier cups, storage, accessibility) — all will need to be designed into the system. Environmental impact is based on materials sourcing and manufacturing, the number of uses before a cup is decommissioned, and its end-of-life plan, so each element must be considered.
Collaboration: Engage baristas, staff and other key stakeholders who don’t often play a role in corporate decision-making processes. The employee buy-in and ease of integration into existing cafe workflows can make or break the success of a system. Determining the appropriate logistics partners also will be crucial at every step of a cup’s existence. Be sure to engage with local policymakers as well to ensure your program’s adherence to health and safety codes, and to help shape future policy to enable reuse models.
Implementation: Systems will need to be flexible to adapt to unique cafe environments, market needs and cultural considerations. Incentives and fee structures will need to adapt to the particular policy environment in which a cafe sits, which will likely change over time.
Adoption: When considering the overall cost of new systems, account for an investment in education, storytelling and customer acquisition. This will take time. Consider the motivations of customers and design the system accordingly, all while ensuring a seamless customer experience. Evaluate and adjust along the way.
“We are on the cusp of a reuse revolution,” says Bridget Croke, managing director of Closed Loop Partners, in the report. “Reuse will be a growing part of the plastic solution portfolio used by brands and retailers. It’s certainly not going to solve the whole plastic waste challenge, but as more of these models come to market, we are excited to see new solutions that collectively build reuse back into our cultural and behavioral norms.”
Sure, many headlines about reuse are still in pilot phase, but brands and retailers have to start somewhere. On top of designing a workable system — one that considers consumer demand and readiness, cultural differences and financial barriers — it’s important to remember that the humble cup is a primary touchpoint for brand engagement. For most consumers that don’t (yet) bring their own cup to a Starbucks, for example, a change to the design and user experience could have negative visceral, emotional and Instagrammable implications.
Pilots are a great place to begin, so long as they are just the start.