RFID Serves Up Sustainability with Cuploop’s Reusable Cup Solution

By Claire Swedberg

The Estonian technology startup has commercially released a solution by which Confidex RFID tags are applied to reusable drink containers and are then read so the cups can be returned, along with users' deposits.

Technology startup  Cuploop, based in Estonia, has launched an RFID-based cup-tracking solution designed to allow restaurants, cafés and drink vendors to automate the management of reusable cups, thereby offering a sustainable feature to their drink sales without requiring labor time for workers to manually monitor incoming cups and issuing deposit returns to customers. The system uses  Confidex RFID tags,  Nordic ID readers and Cuploop's own cloud-based software.

Cuploop's founders conceived of the idea at a street festival in the company's home city of Tallinn, says Marek Suchaževski, Cuploop's cofounder and CEO, who has a background in the 3D printing of food, including cheeses, chocolates and other products that can be pushed through a syringe and into a mold. In 2018, the 3D printing company had a booth at the festival and was surrounded by drink vendors serving products in reusable cups. Customers would pay a deposit when purchasing a drink, such as a cup of beer, and would receive their deposit back upon returning their empty cup, which could then be washed and reused.

Cuploop's Marek Suchaževski

Suchaževski witnessed that the system, however well-intended, was disorganized and labor-intensive. Individuals had to stand in queues to return their empty cups and receive their money, and in some cases the cups simply weren't returned. "The service was terrible, painfully slow and uncomfortable," he recalls, for both the customers and the vendors. Therefore, he came up with an idea to automate that process. Together with several colleagues, he says, "We started to develop ideas with RFID."

By the end of the year, Suchaževski launched Cuploop with the company's cofounders, CTO Lauri Luik and CPO Christopher Juul. The firm then provided a solution. employing Confidex UHF RFID tags built into cups that could be read via handheld readers. Cuploop took the new solution back to the street festival in June 2019. "We wanted to see if the system worked the way we imagined," he recalls. The company acquired 15,000 cups and tagged them with the passive UHF adhesive tags, each of which was encoded with a unique ID number to individually identify the cup to which it was attached.

The startup provided the RFID-enabled cups to 75 vendors, along with handheld readers for counting purposes. It found that returned cups could be sorted and deposits returned within about 30 minutes for all participating vendors, and that the handheld could identify cups erroneously discarded in the trash. "That allowed us to locate those," Suchaževski says, by having workers put the reader in Geiger counter mode and walk around the festival grounds. Additionally, Cuploop's associates could pass each vendor and use the device to capture the tags of all cups still in inventory, and thereby know how many cups each vendor had left and thus whether replenishment was required.

Customers would pay a deposit when purchasing a drink and would receive that money back upon returning the empty cup.

The company next developed an RFID tag-reading machine and reusable cup receptacle that could capture the tag ID of each returned cup, automate deposit returns for customers and accept other takeaway containers. The Cuploop machine includes a UHF RFID reader and antennas that read tags both inside and outside the device. A vendor would provide each customer with a reusable cup filled with his or her purchased drink. That individual would provide a credit card or bank card account number, and an employee would read the tag attached to the patron's cup via a handheld reader attached to a tablet. The data would then be stored in Cuploop's cloud-based software.

The tag-reading machine constantly transmits an interrogation signal to capture data from any RFID tags within the vicinity. To return a cup, an individual first approaches the machine. When the exterior antenna captures a tag read, the machine's built-in software confirms that the ID is from a Cuploop cup tag, then releases the lock on the device's compartment door. The user pulls the door open and deposits the empty cup inside. As the machine receives the tag, the system confirms its ID and displays on a touchpad screen that the deposit will be refunded to that individual's account. The user selects "Agree" and taps an NFC-enabled bank card in front of the machine's NFC tag reader, after which the transaction is completed.

"The RFID tags gave us so many advantages," Suchaževski reports. By automating the receipt of used cups or other beverage or food containers, he explains, the machine eliminates the need for manual sorting and belt systems, while providing data indicating what has been returned and can thus be cleaned and reused. The machines have been tested in-house and are being launched by partners serving Estonian vendors this month, with full commercial availability expected in March 2021. The full Cuploop solution will be piloted in the Netherlands this spring, then in Scandinavia during the summer, and the company is currently in discussions with technology partners that would provide the reusable cup service to beverage vendors in the United States as well.

Initially, Cuploop reports, users are primarily event organizers that offer drinks with reusable cup services. Partners will provide the Cuploop machines as part of their own solutions. Cuploop also offers a machine-less version of its solution for small events or vendors. In this case, the tablet and handheld reader can be employed to read the tag ID of each reusable cup as it is supplied to a customer, as well as when it is returned at the same counter. In that way, users can eliminate the process of manually counting returned cups or individually returning deposit money to every customer. While the company uses readers and antennas from Nordic ID, it also makes its own antennas.

As the machine receives the tag, the system confirms its ID and displays on a touchpad screen that the deposit will be refunded to that individual's account.

The system not only detects every cup, Suchaževski says, but also enables analytics with historical data. For instance, the collected data allows users to track how many times a particular cup has been used and returned; typically, the reusable cups can sustain approximately 75 wash cycles. The RFID tags are affixed to the outside of cups rather than being built into them directly, he notes, and the system helps companies reduce their carbon footprint. "We want to solve the last mile," he states, "so people give [cups] back to the machine wherever they are and get refunds."

Interest in sustainability and reusability is on the rise globally, in part due to regulations. The EU Commission, for instance, has taken legislative actions this year to prevent or reduce the use of throwaway plastic items. For restaurants trying to meet those new standards, Suchaževski says, many struggle with incentivizing consumers to return reusable cups, as well as with manually sorting, counting and cleaning them. "We want to make the returning of the package as easy as throwing it away," he explains.

The company selected Confidex's tags due to what Suchaževski describes as their high RF performance and effective adhesive. "The longer you wash them, the better they stick." The tags can sustain a wide temperature range, he reports, and are typically read at a distance of up to 9 meters (29.5 feet). "If somebody throws a package in the bushes," he says, "we can scan them with hand scanners to find all the cups."

The company is now conducting research into creating microwaveable tags that could be applied to reusable packaging, such as takeout food that a customer would reheat in a microwave oven. The technology could also be used for applications beyond restaurants and drink vendors, the company indicates. For instance, food packaging at stores could be sold with a food product, such as a piece of meat, and could then be returned for a refund. This, according to Suchaževski, could spare retailers from having to provide single-use packaging that would end up being thrown into a landfill.