Alice Neville writes for The Spinoff
Wellington-based startup Again Again has big plans for the way you do takeaways.
Have you got a keep cup? Oh you do? Neat. Where is it? Oh you don't know? Probably at home? Maybe at work? Maybe in the car? So not with you when you went to get your takeaway flat white this morning, then? Hmm, I see.
The thing is, most people are not that good at being good – sure, they'll recycle, but of course they're not going to rinse out that tuna can first, who can be bothered? They might chuck a banana skin into the office compost bin, but they'll probably chuck it in the rubbish bin if it's closer.
Nada Piatek and the team at Again Again know this. As a general rule, people nominally care about sustainability but they're not that good at doing anything that requires effort of any form. So she's trying to make it easier for them.
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Again Again, which launched in Wellington in November last year, is a reusable cup scheme for cafes. Basically, cafes share a pool of lidded stainless steel cups that customers pay a $3 bond for, which is refunded when they return the cup to any cafe in the network.
Piatek was on the leadership team of Wellington-based social enterprise Sustainability Trust when the idea for Again Again came to her. "I guess we spent our days at the trust looking for new ways to give people sustainable options in the way they lived, and one day I had a lightbulb moment. It started with 'my god, we should do this, this could save the world', and then I guess it has developed over a long period of time to be the system that it is today."
She soon discovered she wasn't the first person to come up with the idea – similar systems exist in various cities overseas – but that didn't mean it was easy to figure out exactly what form it would take. "When we first started developing it, it was a tech solution," Piatek explains. "We were going to build tech to keep track of the cups. I guess that was the immediate way we thought we could do it and not lose money."
Her co-founder in the business is Melissa Firth, who before launching Again Again was Te Papa's chief digital officer, so a focus on tech was natural. "But as we developed it, we felt that tech actually stood in the way of uptake," says Piatek. "We realised that whatever the solution was going to be, it needed to be super easy, so we essentially found our way back to a deposit system using cash."
With Piatak based in Wellington and Firth in Auckland, both cities were considered for the launch, but the coffee-mad capital eventually won out, with support from the council. "I think Wellington has got a really signed-on, educated population – which is not to say that Auckland hasn't – but the density of the population here is really attractive as well."
Again Again kicked off with a trial period, in which 14 Wellington cafes took part. "At the end of the trial, 100percent of them saw the benefit, not just from an environmental perspective but to save them money," says Piatek. "All of them moved on to a paid plan with us, which we thought was pretty outstanding. We were not expecting that – it would be naive to expect that everybody you trial with thinks it's a good idea."
By the end of January, when the trial period ended, Again Again had signed a contract with Mojo to roll out across its 21 Wellington cafes, and had expressions of interest from 150 cafes in total.
"What is probably driving our rapid rate of uptake is that if the cafe can convert 20percent of its takeaway coffee drinkers to use our Again Again system, they're saving money," says Piatek.
Again Again charges cafes a monthly fee to be part of the scheme, which is scaled depending on the size of the cafe. "So for a mid-tier cafe, it's $3 a day. That $3 a day translates to 15 cups. So if 15 coffee drinkers choose an Again Again cup that day, the cafe is saving – what they pay us is less than the cost of the single-use cups they have to buy."
For some cafes, the rates are a lot higher. In its first week of being on the scheme last month, for example, 77percent of takeaway coffees bought from the Vic Books Kiosk were in Again Again cups. The parliament cafe, Copperfields, also just came on board, with early reports of high uptake.
Last week, long-running Aro Street bakery/cafe Arobake announced it was doing away with single-use cups altogether, offering only Again Again cups for takeaway customers. The move is projected to displace more than 30,000 single use cups each year, diverting nearly half a tonne of waste from landfill. It's thought to be the first cafe in New Zealand to take this step, and Piatek is impressed. "It really shows foresight and the value of modelling that you can have a different system. To have the confidence and courage to be different – I just think it's really inspiring."
There is a natural rate of attrition with the cups, but not as many disappear as you might think, says Piatek. "Cups go out more than they come back, but that's not to say they're lost. We hear these stories all the time: 'oh yeah, I've got like three of them on my desk now, I must give them back'.
"We haven't been doing it long enough to be able to test with any accuracy how many of those cups have gone for good, and how many have gone but are coming back. I'm sure there are some that end up in people's picnic baskets or student flats, but the beauty of using a cash system rather than tech is that they always represent value to whoever has got the cup.
"For example, if I go to the beach to have a coffee and leave the cup on the beach, the next person who walks past might be a kid who wants some pocket money, or perhaps a homeless person, or just anyone who understands the system: there's something in it for them to pick it up.
"You don't get that so much with tech – no one walks past a broken Onzo bike in a hedge and picks it up and takes it back, because there's nothing in it for them. But if someone walks past one of our cups in a hedge, they'll be like 'I'll take that, that's my next cup of coffee free'."
The cups come in two sizes, 230ml and 350ml (close enough to what coffee drinkers commonly refer to as 8 ounce and 12 ounce), and are made of stainless steel. Each cup comes with a silicon lid and a paper sleeve.
A lot of thought went into choosing the materials, but there has been some criticism, says Piatek. Stainless steel was chosen for environmental reasons – the worldwide recycling market for most plastics has collapsed, whereas stainless steel recycling is in pretty good shape. Single-use compostable lids were considered, but overseas data suggests only a tiny proportion of these actually make it to commercial composting facilities. "So we choose silicon, which is malleable, it has a good seal, and it allows the cup to be slightly dented and still stay in circulation."
The paper sleeves are there for the branding opportunity they provide. "Plenty of people say 'why have something that potentially ends up in landfill?', and it's a really fair question to ask," says Piatek. "But it goes back to what people actually want and need, and the big guys like L'Affare, Mojo and Allpress are not going to give up on the branding opportunity that single-use cups offer them.
"We could have created a system of not using paper and taking out the branding opportunity, and we would lose 80percent of the market."
The sleeves also act as a heat guard, but feedback from drinkers of long blacks and tea is that the steel still gets very hot, even with the sleeve. "But it almost always goes hand in hand with 'oh well, I'll get used to it because actually it feels great having a coffee guilt free'," says Piatek.
Again Again launches its pilot scheme in Auckland next month. Piatek says uptake from Auckland cafes was a lot slower than in Wellington but now it's snowballing. "Initially our plan was 14 or 15 cafes, and then all of a sudden we went from two that had signed a contract to 22, and a whole lot of other cafes in the pipeline.
"Down here [in Wellington], almost without exception people said 'yes, but what does the coffee taste like?' But up in Auckland almost without exception they said 'yes, but how do we process GST?'" she laughs.
Thirty Auckland cafes have now signed contracts, including Crave in Morningside, Amano and The Store in the Britomart, and many in the City Works Depot and Ponsonby Central complexes. Piatek expects another 10 or 15 to sign on by the mid-June launch.
Looking ahead, Again Again is hoping to roll out to other parts of New Zealand, and is also setting its sights on other single-use products: the likes of sushi and curry containers. This means going back to building a tech solution, because "as the unit value gets bigger, cash doesn't cut it", says Piatek. Seeking funding is the next step, and they'll be taking their application to the seed-funding market soon.
"Once behaviour is changed and it becomes normalised to do this, then it becomes easier to ask people to download an app and put their credit card details in," she says.