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Elevator pitch: Again Again, the circular coffee cup system

Coffee is New Zealand’s go to drink of choice, and while our standards are high for the caffeinated drink, they are unfortunately lower when it comes to delivering the hundreds of millions of coffee cups into landfill.

Enter the new cups-as-a-service system for takeaway coffee, Again Again. The social enterprise implements a circular model, where reusable cups can be purchased by the customer, then returned to any café involved with the system for a new one, enabling less waste from both the user and the café.

Founded in 2018 by Nada Piatek and Melissa Firth, both founders have used their background knowledge in manufacturing, sustainability and retail to create the perfect system for our coffee cup wastages. Firth says changing behaviour is always the hardest part, so the team has tried to position Again Again as the most convenient method for change.

The system is designed to make reuse as normal as convenience when it comes to the world’s takeaway coffee habits, while being designed for mass adoption. The way the system is positioned counterpoints the current common problems with our coffee habits, says Firth.

“Everyone wants to be good, but change is hard. Again Again is unlike biodegradable disposable cups, most of which are never recycled or composted, or personal reusable cups, which are great but which most people never remember to have with them. There are few people who faultlessly manage to have them in hand every single time you spontaneously want a coffee. Our research showed less than five percent of takeaway coffees are purchased in a reusable cup. In Australia, where personal cup usage is higher, they’re still sending one billion coffee cups to landfill every year.”

Firth stresses the fact of how much coffee cup waste actually clogs our land. In Aotearoa, we throw away 295 million disposable cups every single year. Global estimates sit at 88 billion hot cups, with the broader category of disposable cups sitting at 500 billion. Each cup contains plastic that contributes to environmental degradation.

The system started, as Firth puts it, when Piatek was on the leadership team for Wellington-based social enterprise Sustainability Trust, and the idea for Again Again came to her.

“We spent our days at the Trust looking for new ways to give people sustainable options in the way they lived, and I was learning a lot about waste,” Piatek says. “I’m a coffee drinker, and one day, holding my latest disposable cup, I had a lightbulb moment. It started with ‘My god, we should do this, this could save the world’. I finished up at the Sustainability Trust, convinced Melissa to join me, and over the last year, we’ve developed that kernel of an idea into the system that it is today.”

Cafes pay a subscription to be involved in the cups on-demand system, licensing the cups for a lower cost than if they purchased them outright. The costs are then covered by the savings from not having to purchase large quantities of disposable cups. For example, using the Again Again free cost calculator, an average café that serves 200 cups per day, and pays 30 cents per cup can have an annual saving of just over $1800 by adopting the model. Again Again then gives a percentage of cafe revenue to community partners to deliver waste education initiatives to the public.

Before co-founding the company, Firth says the two were old friends, both with professional backgrounds and a focus on sustainability in business and their personal lives. Piatek was founder of Wellington fashion label deNada, which in its infancy was incubated by CreativeHQ and which she ran for 12 years. Her experience in fashion gave her a solid understanding of manufacturing, which was extremely helpful in the product design stages of Again Again’s cups.

“Before co-founding Again Again with her, I was chief digital officer at Te Papa, where kaitiakitanga (guardianship) and whanaungatanga (community responsibility) are fundamental to the national museum’s mission. When Nada asked me if I wanted to join her in building Again Again, I was excited by the opportunity to apply my understanding of subscription business models, Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), and the sharing economy to innovation in an industry sector that needs to make significant changes to slow the tide of waste. I’ve always been a make-change-happen kind of person.”

Melissa Firth, Again Again founder and director (left), Nada Piatek, founder and managing director and Amanda Lowe, Auckland operations lead.

Firth says Again Again has been designed to be operable at scale across both independent and branded coffee vendors, where other sharing schemes around New Zealand tend to be hyper-local.

“The power of Again Again is in the network. Because customers can return the cups to any cafe in the network, and because any custom branding is attached to a heat sleeve rather than the cup itself, Again Again’s system can go everywhere. That means real impact at scale. We’ve estimated, based on available data from our Wellington cafe network, that with 50 cafes at 20 percent average uptake, we are potentially already diverting 30,000 disposable cups from waste every month. It’ll only going to get better from there as we grow.”

Conscious consumers are growing in popularity and are always looking for ways to help reduce waste, as Firth says, they are buoyed by a wave of heightened concern. Equally, she points out, it shouldn’t be the sole responsibly of the consumer to make changes.

“To make scalable impact, business needs to step up and take a leadership position on innovating new systems that enable everyone to do the right thing. Scalable solutions and circular economy approaches are completely achievable, they simply take leadership and some effort to think through new systems. We’re hoping that by showing the way on something as ubiquitous as a daily takeaway coffee habit, we’ll inspire, not only consumers, but also other business operators to think more carefully about what they could do differently. It’s going to take all parts of the economy working together to materially make a difference.”

So far, Again Again is building organically without investment, yet with enormous global opportunity and a positive adaption so far, the two intend to raise investment later in the year. For a new business, it has had an uncommonly smooth run, which Firth credits to their industry knowledge in both start-ups and cemented businesses.

“We’ve had almost a dream run, with no major barriers in the course of both developing the product, the system and the business model, piloting it, and commencing rollout. I’ve coached a number of startups in my time, and I think, perhaps because both of us are more seasoned than younger founders, that we’ve been able to hurdle decisions and barriers that can trip early stage companies.”

The team spent time and focus on putting early operating procedures into place, which have allowed them to roll the Again Again system out with little issue. The only barriers so far apart from a few wrongly sized lids and GST surrounding the model, was that the system is growing too quickly for them to fund by bootstrapping.

“If anything, our biggest challenge has been that the market is so ripe for this innovation that rapid growth has put pressure on our cashflow to service large orders. The big challenge on the mission side of Again Again is that mass behaviour change is a journey and we are attempting to take society on that journey along with others doing excellent work in this area. Growing the #choosetoreuse movement will be a work in progress for a while yet.”

The cups, in their sleek design and guilt free purpose are in its fourth month of operation and is now in its product/market fit stages. The company is growing incredibly quickly, and no doubt you’ve seen the sliver cups sitting proudly in your local café. Firth says the growth has been insane, both in Wellington and Auckland, receiving many café enquiries after launching in Auckland on June 11.

“In Wellington, we now have 59 pioneering cafes in the Again Again network, including 19 Mojo sites, Vic Books and early adopters Peoples Coffee, Fidels and Superfino. In Auckland, we had 40 foundation café partners, including Hipgroup’s Britomart locations, Espresso Workshop, Kind and Crave, most of Ponsonby Central and City Works Depot, among many others. Britomart Precinct themselves have been right behind us since the earliest stages too.”

Even just two weeks after the Auckland launch, another 12 cafes have completed their onboarding process, including Wellington airport which offers cups to both staff and travellers in the domestic terminal.

“We have had, literally, hundreds of enquiries from all around the country and have had a Wanaka cohort, supported by a Souther Lakes District Council grant, confirm to launch in October. Discussions are continuing with many large institutions, many of whom service the tourism industry nationally. Auckland Council have also confirmed a small funding allocation to support our growth in this region.”

Firth says along with café and government support, there has also been a growing increase in interest from corporations looking to get onboard with the movements.

“We’ve had corporates reach out to ask for our help in supporting their staff to reduce their waste in their day-to-day activities. Many have previously provided personal reusable cups to them, but have found that the cups seem to vaporise pretty rapidly and do not fundamentally change behaviours. Increasingly they, and we, can see that Again Again can provide corporations with an activation tool with which to support a change in how people engage with what was once a single-use activity – allowing the team members to continue with their on-demand coffee needs but to also do that waste free.”

Again Again has an audacious goal, aiming to expand nationally across New Zealand and in doing so will aim to divert 169 tonnes of cups annually from going into our landfills.

“We want to take Again Again nationwide and we want to raise investment to move faster and go offshore – with Australia and UK as first cabs off the rank. Our stated three-year forecast is to divert 12 million cups annually from New Zealand’s landfills. But we are not just building a business here, we want to start a #choosetoreuse movement. Our mission is to make reuse as normal as convenience for on-the-go culture.”

Firth says Again Again is hitting all the right marks, and says that as the company grows and includes more of New Zealand’s coffee loving, environmentally friendly people, the change in behaviour will follow easily.

“Conscious consumerism is here, and all indications are that the time is right for our cup lending system. People care, the message is getting through, and the Again Again system makes it effortless to do the right thing.”

What are the cups made of? 

The cups 

The cups are 304 stainless steel, which is the highest-grade stainless steel, rated for food preparation. It doesn’t taint the taste of food or drinks prepared in it. The single-walled cups are available in 230ml (regular) and 350ml (large). 

At end of Again Again use, the cups are sent back to Again Again HQ and directed to scrap metal operators. The metal is recast with no loss of quality. As a resource, steel is totally circular. 

Heat sleeves 

The cups come with a corrugated cardboard heat sleeve that has the option to be brandable. 

“We acknowledge the sleeve is a single-use item. However, lacking a plastic lining, it is either fully recyclable or compostable in-home compost systems. They are also typically being reused at least two or three times,” Firth says. 

The lids 

The lid is silicone, which, while it doesn’t have a scalable recycling stream at the moment, is a reusable item. Silicone’s flexibility means they form an excellent seal, enabling Again Again to keep the steel cups in circulation as long as possible, even if the cup is dinged or dented.  

The dream 

Again Again aims to be nationwide within 18 months, and starting to grow offshore in a similar timeframe.  

“We believe that people can save the planet from waste without compromising their convenience. It just takes small adjustments to daily routines, and it takes businesses to be more serious about applying circular economy thinking to the way they deliver products and services to customers. We’re happy to be lighting the way.” 

Cafes that’d like to join the system or want to find out more can do so at againagain.co/cafe-info  
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