RFID Refunds Coffee Drinkers’ Deposits for Reusable Cups

By Claire Swedberg

U.K.'s Delete Cups enables customers to pay for a reusable cup, then receive a refund when they return it, without requiring an app

A U.K. businessman with a mission aimed at sustainability in food and beverage service has developed a technology solution to eliminate paper or plastic cups.

The system from founder Alasdair Hood’s startup Delete Cups consists of RFID tagged, reusable beverage cups, readers deployed at café points of service, and software that manages the sales and return transactions.

South Street Kitchen, in Sheffield, UK, is among the cafés now deploying the technology to offer a more sustainable packaging solution, said company co-founder Rachel Cornish. The seasonal, vegetarian, vegan Middle Eastern restaurant is leveraging the system to help meet environmental goals of minimum waste.

Eliminating Single Serve Cups

Over the past few years, Hood has been testing the system in his own coffee shops, and has recently sold those shops to focus on expanding the technology across the U.K and beyond. The goal is to reduce the volume of disposable cups that flow into the waste stream.

About four years ago Hood was a coffee shop owner aiming at operating a sustainable business, but began looking for a technology-based solution to what he calls the massive elephant in the room.

“When you're trying to sell low impact coffee but in a single use cup,” the solution is not environmentally sustainable,” he said.

While he considered adopting existing solutions, Hood said, “There are lots of things that are still out there advertising themselves as a solution.” But he found reusable container tracking technology overly complicated; many systems required users to take the additional step of downloading an app.

“That's not progress,” he said, arguing a solution has to be as good or better than the system already in place. App downloading simply added steps to the customer’s journey toward their cup of coffee.

Cutting Costs by Half

Delete Cups resulted (named for its vision of deleting the cup from the waste stream) with a software system that automatically links an RFID tag on any unique object to a transaction, without needing access to customer details or the details of their account. In August 2023, Hood’s cafes began using this system instead of single use cups.

The system is designed to be fast without requiring any behavior change on the part of the customer or barista.

Hood’s company set the price of the solution—including reusable cups, embedded RFID tags, readers and software to manage transactions and returns—at 50 percent of the price of simply buying cups that are thrown away. That would mean that café managers would no longer buy any disposable cups.

How it Works

With Delete, cafés are given polypropylene plastic cups with built in RFID tags. The cups—manufactured by sustainable packaging company Bockatech—can reportedly last at minimum 500 wash cycles.

When a customer places their order, the cup is filled and baristas may write the customer's name on the cup—the name rinses off again with the next washing.

The customer is informed that their drink is in a reusable cup, and if they bring the cup back to any participating café to be re-used, they will receive one British pound back into the account they are making their purchase from.

At the register, during the sales transaction, the details about the order include a line item referencing the Delete Cups deposit which is added to the charge.

The drink is handed to the customer over an RFID checkout pad in which is a reader and antenna captures the unique ID encoded on the cup’s RFID tag. The data is captured by the software and links to the payment software, such as Square.

Returns With RFID Reader

Once the customer has completed their drink, they return the cup to that café or another participating café. The RFID reader is typically built into a returns bin, or at a dedicated counter. That reader then captures the tag ID again, which automatically returns funds to the buyer.

The company is using RFID labels from Core RFID, and has a third-party manufacturer making the readers for the application.

In a temporary location, such as a festival, companies can set up bins with RFID readers that capture the tags as the cups are deposited there. Additionally, users could employ a regular “dumb bin” without a reader. Businesses could then use bulk checkout RFID readers, provided by Delete Cups, which are designed to quickly read all the cups in a bin at one time.

According to Hood, the system is deleting cups with every serving. By the time a reusable cup is provided to a customer the fourth time, there is a net positive impact on the environment.

South Street Kitchen Reduces Waste

For South Street Kitchen, the technology helps meet a mission of sustainability by reducing potential waste.

“We always strive to reduce the environmental impact of our takeaway offerings, and using Delete Cups will be a major step forward [in that effort],” says the business’s co-owner, Tim Jenkins.

Delete Cups is now talking to investors while deployments are underway by several cafés.

In the long term, Hood says, the technology has other applications that could be deployed in coming months, such as managing the containers used in horticulture. Customers of garden centers can purchase a plant in a returnable pot with an RFID tag embedded in it.

Similarly to the coffee cup model, the customer would receive an automatic refund of their deposit each time they return a pot after removing the plant.

Key Takeaways
  • The RFID solution known as Delete Cups uses technology to ensure reusable cups are returned to cafes and the deposit credited to a café customer.
  • The system is being deployed by several cafés in the U.K.