Smart reusable coffee cups hold the key to scalable reduction of packaging waste.

No one would deny that packaging waste is a big issue for the coffee industry. Over 3 billion disposable cups are discarded each year in the UK alone and, due to processing difficulties and low value of the recyclate, just 0.25% of them are recycled.

“We’re dedicated to increasing recycling, but we ultimately believe that encouraging reuse is the best way forward for a more sustainable future,” declares coffee giant Costa.

It’s a stance echoed by chains such as McDonald’s, Starbucks and Caffè Nero, all of whom have trialled reuse systems in a bid to minimise the number of disposable cups that are sent to landfill.

It’s also something that Pragmatic – along with sustainable drinkware specialists Circular&Co. and agile digital returns platform providers re-universe – is tackling with a smart reusable coffee cup solution that automates returns and smooths the path to sustainability. The solution uses near-field communication (NFC)-based tags and is powered by FlexICs, Pragmatic’s flexible integrated circuits.

Smart reusable coffee cups

Adding intelligence to low-value items like coffee cups may seem counter-intuitive, so why do they need to be smart?

“Standard, ‘no-tech’ solutions work well on a small scale – particularly in trials or closed environments, such as single-day events,” says Dan Dicker, CEO and Founder of Circular&Co., “but typically they require some level of staff intervention, which can be a time-suck in busy retail environments.

“What’s more, traceability is critical to delivering a workable, profitable returnable model. Smart cups allow for automated, self-serve customer returns while providing the data that’s essential for accurate, on-time stock control, as well as insight into return and loss rates.”

Circular&Co.’s reusable cups are made using waste materials and are fully ‘real-world’ recyclable, meaning no specialist techniques or processes are required to break the materials down. With a premium feel, traditional ‘sippy’ lid and heat-diffusing ribs that remove the need for a sleeve, each cup is designed to last for over 1000 uses.

“Today’s reusable cups are more durable than ever and FlexICs have considerably lowered the cost of adding intelligence,” continues Dan, “NFC also allows for multi-vender platforms, meaning multiple retailers can run a joint scheme but still have ownership and traceability of their assets, so all the conditions are there for the solution to scale.”

The environmental impact of smart coffee cups

But … wait a minute. How environmentally friendly is it to add electronics to a reusable cup?

“FlexICs are considerably more environmentally friendly to produce than the equivalent silicon chip,” explains Emma Kastrisianaki-Guyton, Pragmatic’s Senior Consultant, Circular Economy.

“Silicon semiconductor fabrication typically consists of more than 400 process steps, some of which require extremely high temperatures – up to 1000°C. By contrast, Pragmatic’s unique production process uses just 30 steps, most of which occur at less than 200°C. This results in significantly reduced consumption of energy, water, chemicals and process gases and, in particular, does not create or release PFAS (‘forever chemicals’).

“That said, any electronic element has the potential to create e-waste, so we’re currently looking at a number of ways to minimise FlexICs’ impact and make it as easy as possible to recycle when the cup reaches the end of its life.

“However, if each reusable cup can save the environmental impact of 1000 disposable cups, the net gain justifies the method.”

Bringing data to scale

“Data is key to reuse,” continues Emma. “It allows vendors to respond dynamically, adjusting deposit or reward levels in real time, for example, if return rates are too low.”

“Accurately understanding reuse and return rates can only be done through the use of technology,” agrees Rachel Warren, re-universe’s CEO.

re-universe’s digital platform delivers real-time data and insights to the vendor, allowing them to measure and adapt the scheme accordingly. It also recognises smart cups individually, automatically opening the returns platform to provide consumers with a quick and easy deposit refund.

“NFC really opens up a world of consumer interaction,” concludes Emma, “making it easy to retrieve deposits, accrue and redeem rewards, or access advanced product information and competitions … whatever is most appropriate for the vendor.”

NFC also helps to reduce overall solution costs, since smartphones can be used as readers, without need for specialised infrastructure.

“This means that smart solutions are no longer the preserve of big brands. By lowering the barrier to entry, we’re increasing accessibility for smaller organisations – something that’s essential if we really want to tackle packaging waste.”


Meet the next-generation returnable cup