New service aims to cut out single-use plastic from takeaways, rent out containers for free
SINGAPORE: A new service recently launched in Singapore wants to replace single-use plastic in takeaways with reusable cups and containers that customers can rent technically for free.
Revolv aims to partner food and beverage outlets by switching the disposables they use for takeaways, like styrofoam cups or plastic containers, with reusables made of stainless steel or glass.
Customers buying a cup of coffee to go, for instance, would pay a deposit for the reusable cup on top of the price of the beverage. They get their deposit back when they return the cup at a location nearby - usually at another participating outlet. No washing is required.
The company made its debut on Sunday (Jan 20) at a sustainable living festival and provided reusable cups for a stall selling organic drinks. The cups were returned to the same stall or at another drop-off point on site.
"The response was incredibly positive," Revolv's Singapore lead Jonathan Tostevin told Channel NewsAsia on Tuesday (Jan 22). "People liked the experience of using it and what we were doing."
This comes as Singapore has declared 2019 as the Year Towards Zero Waste. In 2017, the country produced more than 800,000 tonnes of plastic waste, with only 6 per cent of this being recycled.
A Singapore Environment Council study published last July also found that Singapore uses 473 million plastic disposable items like takeaway containers each year.
Therein lies the potential demand for Revolv, Mr Tostevin said, noting that Singaporeans "use so much of this stuff".
"It feels like there’s a growing environmental consciousness in Singapore, but it’s probably still a minority," he added.
"I think if we can offer a solution that allows people to engage in something that is good for the environment, but doesn’t require them to put in that much effort, then that’s something that would appeal."
Mr Tostevin said it's also important for customers to enjoy the benefits of using sturdier reusables as compared to flimsy disposables.
WHERE CAN YOU GET IT?
But with Revolv only just starting out in Singapore, the company is looking to ensure that returning its containers is "as easy as putting it in a bin", Mr Tostevin said.
To that end, he said the company will in the next few months pilot a reusable coffee cup service at three or four environmentally friendly cafes in "pretty contained" areas, where drop-off points can be located close to each other.
Tiong Bahru is one area that could work, Mr Tostevin added, although he declined to reveal specific locations as the company is still identifying the right eateries to work with.
During the pilot, Revolv will study customer and outlet response, and whether there is a need to redesign its products.
The length of the pilot would depend on the response, Mr Tostevin said. "If it works, then we’re about operational timelines, what kind of products we bring in, the capacity in the team, interest from other outlets and when we bring the technology in," he added.
HOW DO YOU PAY?
While customers participating in the pilot might get physical tokens to indicate they've paid the deposit, Mr Tostevin said Revolv's containers will eventually come with radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags for electronic payment and collection of deposits.
As for how much the deposit is, Mr Tostevin said it will be low enough to facilitate adoption, but high enough to incentivise customers to return the containers. Customers who use and return the containers multiple times will also enjoy discounts on their next meal or drink.
This technology can also be used to track each Revolv container as it goes from eatery to customer and back to another eatery.
Mr Tostevin said there will probably be a limit on how long customers can hang on to the containers before returning them, but added that "we're not trying to make money out of people not returning their containers".
"I don’t see us adopting an aggressive stance on that," he said. "Ultimately, we want to incentivise people to put the cups back into the system so that they’re being used."
With potentially hundreds of thousands of containers moving in and out of the system at full scale each day - a scale which Mr Tostevin said is needed for the system to work - he acknowledged that it will be "operationally very intensive".
Mr Tostevin said he doesn't want extra labour or transport costs in the system, noting that ideally, the containers move naturally between participating eateries via customers.
Washing should also be done by the eateries, although Mr Tostevin recognised that some of these outlets do not have the capacity to do it themselves. In this case, Revolv could provide a cleaning service.
"Once we get the technology on board, perhaps there might be ways that we can distribute that," he said, stating that a dishwashing service at a participating food court could, for instance, clean Revolv's containers during off-peak hours.
"We’re looking to provide a platform that is agile and can flex to work in different ways in different parts of the city," he added.
Regardless, Mr Tostevin said hygiene is a priority during washing, adding that Revolv will only work with eateries that are compliant with National Environment Agency (NEA) standards.
"If we end up cleaning it ourselves, we obviously will be using commercial companies that clean to NEA guidelines," he stated. "It’s very important that hygiene standards are maintained on a product that’s being reused."
WHAT'S IN IT FOR EATERIES
While these are important considerations for eateries looking to come on board, Mr Tostevin stressed that the service will benefit them.
"Instead of buying 10,000 coffee cups currently, they would pay for our service to have a stock of Revolv cups on site and replenished on a regular basis," he said, pointing out that the containers are also of higher quality.
"It would also simplify their stock management system, so they won’t actually need to worry about an inventory or storage space."
Still, Mr Tostevin said Revolv's service fee would need to roughly match what eateries are paying for disposables, noting that ultimately, "they're not going to pay loads more".
"I don’t want to rule it out forever, but our starting position is we don’t want consumers to pay for this beyond the deposit," he added.
If all goes well, Mr Tostevin said the plan is to expand to more locations.
"We’d also like to see this working, say, in the CBD (Central Business District) area. Working with the corporates, you could see them having a drop-off point on the office floor," he said. "I can see that model happening quite quickly."
Revolv also wants to launch in university campuses, with Mr Tostevin highlighting the suitability of a closed, singly managed area with a ready user base.
But the "golden aim", Mr Tostevin said, is to go into food courts and hawker centres, which are heavy users of styrofoam boxes and plastic containers for takeaways. "The vendors there are operating super low margins, so we got to make it something that works for them," he added.
And then there are Singapore's ubiquitous food delivery services and the packaging waste they produce. Companies like Deliveroo and foodpanda have responded to concerns by making disposable cutlery optional.
"Food delivery is really interesting," Mr Tostevin said, noting that it could take two to three years to penetrate this market. "It's something we’d be totally up for, seeing how our system could work for that."
But Mr Tostevin admitted that there would be different operational challenges, especially as containers are spread across the island, with customers who are even more reluctant to leave their homes.
"It would be interesting to see if you could do something with the logistics system that sends them out," he added, noting that this could form a sort of collection system for the containers.
Beyond that, Mr Tostevin said Revolv aims to eliminate tens of thousands of single-use plastic items from Singapore’s waste stream by the end of the year.
"It does require people to maybe go out of their way slightly, but we want to reduce that as much as possible," he said. "An openness to try it would be good."
But for the nine-month-old company with a presence in Bali and Hong Kong - five cafes in Canggu use Revolv cups with an IDR 50,000 (S$4.80) deposit, while three events in Hong Kong featured Revolv products - every milestone counts.
"It’s really exciting and game-changing if we can start to tackle the takeaway coffee problem," Mr Tostevin said.
"Ultimately, we don’t want this to be just for hipsters," he added. "This is something we want to be mainstream."