Food Service Ensures Reusable Packaging Return with RFID

Published: February 28, 2024

Compass Group Canada is offering its service with a solution from Reusables that tracks when reusable containers are taken when food is purchased, returned and cleaned

One source of waste that impacts landfills is the tons of disposable packaging generated from food that is purchased “to go.”

It’s a challenge that one Canadian technology company believes it can help resolve.

Vancouver tech firm has partnered with Compass Group Canada to offer a foodservice solution that enables individuals to purchase food and drinks in durable metal or plastic containers, take them out of the restaurant for up to five days, and then receive credit for returning the containers for re-use.

Reusables has rolled out the solution first at Simon Fraser University’s (SFU’s) Mackenzie Café. The “Tap to Reuse and Smart Return Bin” solution—leveraging passive UHF RFID technology— went live in September, 2023.

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Three Years of Reuse Solutions for Food Service

The solution enables food service organizations to replace their single-use, disposable packaging with stainless steel reusable containers. That means eliminating the waste of wrappers, plastic cups, and plastic shells that are typically used for food that is purchased “to go” at restaurants or dining halls.

The solution reduces the cost of purchasing disposable packaging, while also benefiting the environment.

Reusables launched three years ago said Jason Hawkins, Reusables CEO and cofounder the company started by “offering reusable packaging for food delivery and take out with restaurants.”

It then expanded to serve enterprise food service operators such as Compass Group, that offer dining and food services to institutions such as colleges, corporations and hospitals.

The solution includes RFID tags for packaging, readers at point of sale, in return kiosks, and cleaning areas, as well as the software that is managed in the cloud. While the company is based in Vancouver, it has been growing to offer solutions across Canada and the U.S.

Ensuring Trays, Bowls and Cups are Returned

Dining facilities, such as cafés in university settings, offer take-out options so busy students and faculty can take the food where they need it, rather than dining onsite. However, the takeout packaging can be wasteful.

The solution, said Hawkins, offers a convenience factor for customers to be able to take foods back to their class or dorm or faculty office, and then bring the containers back.

“What we’re seeing is about half of a dining hall might be take-out so the volumes are pretty significant on a campus,” he said.

RFID Solution

Simply trusting that diners will return containers could be costly. A plastic reusable container could cost $3 or $4 while stainless steel containers price at $20.

“So it’s really important to get them returned, not only from a financial perspective but also from an environmental perspective,” Hawkins said.

RFID, therefore, provides accountability as well as inventory management, to ensure the containers that leave the dining area come back. The system does not rely on a deposit-return system, he added, which has proven largely unsuccessful in student settings. Instead, for those who return the container within the time limit, the process is completely free.

How it Works

Reusables sells its own containers that have the tags incorporated directly, but the solution works with containers from other providers. In the latter case, UHF RFID tags can be applied later by the food service provider.

“We can help them adhere the tags to the containers,” Hawkins adds.

The unique ID on each RFID tag is linked to usage data about that container in Reusable’s proprietary software.

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When a diner purchases a meal packaged in a reusable, they tap their payment information (such as credit or debit card or student ID) and a reader at the point of sale links the packaging with that payment ID. They are not charged for the containers, however.

Within the next three or five days—depending on the facility’s requirements—the user must go to a “smart return bin” installed in public locations around the campus or community. They hold the packaging within range of the bin, where its built-in RFID reader captures the tag ID, confirms it is authentic and updates Reusable’s API. This triggers a motorized door to automatically open to provide the user access.

The user deposits their packaging and their account is updated. They are then credited with returning the items they were responsible for. If they don’t, they will be charged for those items.

The bins are connected to Wi-Fi or LTE networks and Reusable’s software API “that has the accountability piece associated with the individual,” Hawkins said. “The whole point of it is to make sure that there’s accountability associated with the containers.”

Bringing Return Rates Above 90 Percent

Reusables strives to provider its customers with an overall return rate of above 90 percent, while Hawkins said most of its clients thus far are seeing return rates closer to 98 or 99 percent. He adds businesses have an option to assign each container to an individual.

“I would say in most cases it is assigned to an individual because that allows you to have some level of accountability, and the option to add financial accountability,” Hawkins added.

The Reusable platform can be integrated with any major POS system. The RFID technology company is integrated with the major campus credential platforms in use by food establishments and higher-education.

Versatility of UHF RFID

When developing the solution, Reusables tested different kinds of RFID tags and opted to leverage UHF RFID technology based on its ability to read at distances, when necessary.

The long read range brings operational scalability, the company reports, and is especially useful in cases where companies are reading the tags at the cleaning site. In that case, as the soiled containers enter the cleaning cycle, the tag is read with a fixed reader to update the inventory data about containers and their status.

In the case of reading the tags as containers are cleaned, a read range of five feet or six feet is optimal, Hawkins explains.

On the other hand, when it comes to reading tags at the point of sale and return bin sites, the reader antennas power is dialed down, to read the tags only at short range. In that way, they can avoid stray reads from neighboring tags.

Additionally, the return bin comes with a liner that ensures tags are read while they are inside the bin, but not when they are attached to stray containers being carried past it.

In fact, Reusables has created software algorithms that restrict the bin reader from reading tags continually once they have first been detected.

Customized RFID tag

When building the system, Reusables needed rugged technology that could withstand the rigors of washing and reusing packaging as some packaging may be exposed to high temperature and high pressure washing with as many as 1000 wash cycles. They also needed a tamper proof tag that would work well around metal.

Because the company couldn’t find such tags already on the market, they selected on-metal RFID tag company Xerafy to develop the tag they needed. One key question Reusables needed to address was how a tag could be easily retrofitted into a vast inventory of food containers.  They wanted a system that enhanced user experience, be cost effective and help deliver an ROI, recalls Michel Gillmann, Xerafy’s CMO.

The result is a high temperature tag that can be attached to metal, and that comes with a silicone encasement. Xerafy helped Reusables identify specialized adhesive that allows users to adhere the tag to stainless steel.

For on-plastic tags, however, Reusables uses tags from Avery Dennison or other tag manufacturers.

Key Takeaways:
  • Compass Group food service company is the latest to adopt an RFID solution from Reusables to help restaurants and dining halls track the return of reusable packaging.
  • The solution is designed to eliminate waste around disposable packaging, while ensuring that plastic and stainless-steel containers are returned for re-use.