Good Food Governance

City to Sea’s returnable cup scheme

By George Clark

Read City to Sea Project Manager George Clark’s latest Bristol Good Food 2030 story about City to Sea’s returnable cup scheme pilot.

We were thrilled to choose Bristol as the location for the pilot of our returnable coffee cup scheme, and I’m excited to share the success we’ve had in our mission to reduce single-use cup waste.

From World Refill Day on 16 June 2023, until the end of October 2023, we managed to save the planet from 3,750 single-use cups – a fantastic result! Our scheme aimed to address the alarming statistic of 66,000 single-use coffee cups being used and discarded in Bristol daily. We empowered customers to borrow a reusable cup from a café when purchasing a hot drink, with the flexibility to return it up to two weeks later to any participating outlet. The pilot involved 20 independent outlets, including two UWE cafés and the UWE SU bar, and saw a total of 750 people actively participating in the initiative.

Beyond just proving the viability of a returnable cup scheme, our pilot also served as a testing ground for various operational options. We experimented with running the scheme with and without a late return fee, and we incentivised customer service workers to promote the scheme with additional perks. While the pilot has concluded, the insights gained have been invaluable, helping us refine our approach for future implementations.

One notable challenge we encountered involved engaging front-of-house staff in the project. Through A/B testing, we discovered a significant increase in scheme usage when staff were offered incentives to discuss it with customers. Another hurdle was the requirement for users to use the Refill app. Although it posed a barrier, the app played a crucial role in tracking cups and providing essential data. We learned that, on average, people held onto a cup for only three days, and most returned it to the same place they borrowed it from.

Building on the success of the Bristol pilot, City to Sea is now focused on fine-tuning the scheme for a re-launch in Bristol and exploring opportunities in other locations. We are also planning to trial returnable cup schemes in corporate canteens and event venues. Recently, we concluded a successful crowdfunding campaign to support this next phase, and we are actively seeking collaborations with businesses to address their single-use waste.

To further engage businesses and communities, we’ve created a guide on setting up and running a successful returnable cup scheme. Read our guide here and join us in tackling single-use plastic pollution

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