Soup and coffee cafe invents the first takeaway packaging rewards scheme


Elaine Mason

Scotland’s first ‘soup-and-coffee’ café has created one of the most imaginative schemes yet in support of the aim of reducing takeaway packaging waste.

The project pre-dates last month’s much-trumpeted launch of the WRAP agreement, by which the food trade has promised to cut food and associated packaging waste, and increase the amount of such waste sent for recycling or composting. That announcement has been matched by news of the first café loyalty card scheme which rewards customers for returning packaging.

There has been very little imaginative work on the recovery and recycling of cups and similar items in the café trade. The great problem, which nobody has yet really been able to answer, is how a takeaway packaging item can be recovered for either recycling or appropriate disposal.

Scotland’s first ever soup-and-coffee cafe, Union of Genius, run by Elaine Mason, has now created a scheme whereby customers get a stamp on their card every time they bring back used packaging, which the café puts in its food waste bin, to go to composting. As is the case with other coffee-house loyalty cards, a certain number of stamps on the card wins a free drink.

The café uses compostable packaging and cutlery from Vegware, also of Edinburgh.

“As far as I know, our loyalty scheme is the first of its kind anywhere,” Elaine told Coffee House. “I want to be the first to do this, and make it work. 

“We like to get people thinking that if our packaging goes in their office bin, even though it is compostable, it will end up in landfill, whereas we will get it turned into compost, and ultimately back into plants. Many customers have adopted the idea happily, and bring their packaging back.”

The scheme took off reasonably quickly – in the first four months, over 500 items of takeaway packaging were returned to the cafe for composting.

The messiness of soup bowls and coffee cups turns out not to be a problem, says the cafe owner.

“We sell our takeaway soup in Vegware soup bowls, with lids. This package goes in a recycled paper bag. All our customers have to do is put the used packaging back into its paper bag and they can drop the whole lot into our shop’s green bin. It’s not messy for customers, and the green bin at the shop is lined with a bio-bag. No mess!”

Elaine Mason has no time for café owners who might object that recovering packaging is too much work.

“I honestly don’t see how this can be a realistic objection. I have one 70-litre pop-top bin in the front shop for customers’ packaging, and one fifty-litre green bin in the kitchen for food waste and coffee grounds. Each bin is lined with a compostable bio-bag, goes in the pavement green bin and that’s it. All non-bio kitchen waste goes in the other kitchen bin. It’s simple – any arguments to the contrary are just waffle; our cafe is tiny, and we have no trouble with waste separation.”

One big problem, acknowledges Elaine, is the cost of compostable packaging. How can the use of expensive packaging be cost-effective?

“The short answer is that it isn’t – yet. This is a major expensive decisions for us – our scheme rewards the customers, I pay two waste collection bills each month, and as the loyalty scheme becomes more successful, the cost to me increases as the number of items of packaging returned increases!

“However, I have built this into my business plan from the start. I did not transfer to Vegware from using non-compostable packaging, so I’ve not had the price-shock of comparing  polystyrene to compostable. I am investing in compostable packaging and rewarding recycling as a deliberate business position.

“The financial ‘bottom line’ cannot be the sole reason for all business decisions. No matter how cynical we may be these days, some businesses do have strong ethics and principles, and ours is that we see the waste we generate as a potential problem, and want to extend our responsibility for it to the point where we offer rewards for customers who help us clean up after themselves.”

Her supplier, Vegware’s Lucy Frankel, told us: “Most catering waste currently ends up in landfill, the most expensive destination for waste, so it makes business sense to maximise recycling. The WRAP agreement aims for over 70 per cent of food and packaging waste to go for recycling. Some say the targets are not ambitious enough, but any initiative that brings the catering sector together to focus on better waste management has to be a good thing. At Vegware, our Food Waste Network is a free service to match-make any UK business with its local food waste recycling services.”

WRAP is a not-for-profit organisation backed by UK-wide government funding. It did not respond to questions from Coffee House magazine.

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Boughton’s Coffee House is the main news magazine for those who run coffee-houses and tea-rooms, and the main news source for the hot-beverage trade.

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