The lunchtime trip to the local cafe or takeaway shop is a ritual for many professionals of all collar colors. A nice diversion in the middle of the day. Even if it’s only for a few minutes and the lunch is actually eaten at the desk or on the road.
But our daily habits come at a price – both literally (Australians spend $8.3 billion per year on buying lunch) and metaphorically in terms of the impact our routines have on the environment. The majority of take-out plastic containers are in use for less than 30 minutes before they end up in landfill where they’ll continue to live forever.
The good news is that reducing single-use packaging might soon be a lot easier – thanks to initiatives like Melbourne-based startup Returnr.
A closed-loop reusable container network
“The idea behind Returnr is to completely get rid of single-use packaging,” says Founder and CEO, Jamie Forsyth, about the company’s Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG).
To achieve this Jamie is building a closed-loop network of cafes, restaurants, take-away stores, businesses and individuals that uncouples packaging and containers from the idea of ownership.
“One of the problems with owning a reusable container is that it’s so easy to forget at home or it hasn’t yet been cleaned to be able to use them again,” says Jamie. “This friction completely disappears if ownership is taken out of the equation.”
Within the Returnr system, individual consumer never have to buy a reusable container. Instead, they can borrow one for a $6 deposit and get a refund when they return it. Other options are to bring the clean container back for a refill or simply exchange it for a different container.
Because Returnr is based on a network model, the container can be returned or swapped in any participating location for any other container type, making the system even more convenient.
Designing a scalable network
To get an understanding of how interested cafes and restaurants were in joining a network like Returnr, Jamie ran a trial with a simple bowl in 2019. 100 venues participated in the trial and demand kept growing.
The next challenge was to make the model scalable.
“To make the network successful, we needed to design a range that is fit for purpose for all different food and beverage types while also improving the user experience,” says Jamie.
That’s why Returnr spent the last year developing multiple different stainless steel containers that would cover a wide range of usages.
“I am particularly excited about a new canister we’re bringing to market which will be our first foray into grocery,” says Jamie about the company’s progress.
One of the first single-use items he is looking to replace with the canister is the coffee bag, which cannot be recycled because it contains multiple materials. The canister also has the potential to replace single-use containers at deli’s, bulk food stores & markets.
Joining the Returnr network
Given the success of the initial trial period, Jamie has big plans for Returnr in 2020. He’s expecting to partner with 1,000 cafes, restaurants and stores in Australia and is looking to expand the network internationally.
To join the Returnr network, food businesses who want to phase out single-use packaging pay a set partnership fee. The price of this is comparable to what they’d normally pay for their single-use packaging.
Jamie also sees a lot of potential in Returnr’s Workplace Micropool solution: “Many businesses are taking the initiative and are trying to improve their sustainability track record. One simple way of doing that is having a pool of branded Returnr containers available to their staff. They can then take whatever they need when they go out to buy lunch or grab a coffee.”
Returnr is looking to work with businesses wanting to make their workplaces completely waste-free.
Forming more sustainable take-away habits
The Workplace Micropool model also has the benefit that it will become perfectly normal to bring your own container to the local cafe while removing potential points of failure from the system.
“I think that generally people are trying to do the right thing, but to make it easy for them to adopt more sustainable habits, you need to significantly reduce the friction in the process,” says Jamie.
And as the co-founder of the now omnipresent KeepCup, Jamie has spent over a decade convincing people to replace single-use items with reusable alternatives.
“When my sister Abigail and I started KeepCup we knew we had to design something that looked cool, so people would actually want to use it,” explains Jamie. “But that was not the main mandate. The environmental-friendly aspect needed to be a core part of the design.”
For KeepCup this meant understanding exactly how many coffee cup lids it would take to break even in an environmental sense (it’s 16-20) and removing the initial awkwardness of asking the barista to pour our favourite brew in our own cup.
“Luckily, we’re now well beyond the point where people feel embarrassed about bringing their own cup, “ says Jamie and cites that for 25%-30% of all coffee-buyers in ‘cafe hotspots’ taking their own cup has now become the norm.
This is up from 0.1% when he launched KeepCup in 2009. “I think considering how much more aware people are of the issue today and with a network model like Returnr, we’re now ready to tackle the remaining 70%-75%.”