Returnable Cup Scheme:

Case Studies

City to Sea and Circular&Co. share the vision of a circular future, where we value our resources, and where refill and reuse are affordable and accessible for everyone. Working together, and using our shared expertise in the reuse space, we’ve collaborated to create a returnable cup scheme blueprint for the future – providing businesses, communities, and local authorities with the knowledge, guidance and practical advice they need to introduce a returnable cup scheme in their local area.  

Drawing on the expertise of over 20 industry experts, leading reuse brands, and businesses, we’ve have created the guide to provide invaluable insights and practical advice for organisations looking to implement returnable cup schemes at scale.  Download the free guide to find out more about all the case studies featured or read on for insights for some of the innovative and pioneering schemes we’ve spoken to.  

Blenheim Palace 

Blenheim Palace is trialling a pioneering tech-based, semi-closed system (the grounds are open to the public with access to multiple cafes) across Blenheim Palace tourist attraction. The system is supported using the re-universe platform and RFID enabled returnable cups by Circular&Co.  

Visitors pay a £2 deposit on a returnable cup when they buy a hot drink and get their money refunded into their bank account when they return the cup. Visitors can also transfer the deposit money to charity and w ill have the option to keep it floating to use again in the future.  

To reduce friction, users don’t need to download an app or register before use. They pay a £2.00 deposit upon purchase and scan the unique QR code, which automatically opens the returns platform and the cups are returned in ‘return points’ with the RFID technology validating their return. Users receive their full deposit back in their nominated bank account quickly and securely. The cups are uniquely etched using GS1 standard QR codes coupled with RFID technology embedded in the base of the cup.  

This technically advanced system means that each individual cup is identified, tracked and validated at the required ‘data points’ by the re-universe platform. This enables organisations to precisely manage their cup inventory, providing real-time insights into cup usage, washing status, and available inventory at each location and ‘data point’. RFID technology also removes unnecessary extra steps for the consumer making the return process seamless and simple.  

Data is gathered at each ‘data point’ including ‘cups out’ ‘cups returned’ ‘cups washed’ by location and creates user friendly dashboards so Blenheim can track and trace cup usage and impact in real time.  

The scheme only launched in Oct 2023, so they don’t have data to share on the success of the scheme just yet, the organisation were previously serving serving 400,000 hot drinks in single-use cups every year so there is significant potential for high impact.  

Find out more: https://www.blenheimpalace.com/blog/returnable-cups-scheme-back/  

The Refill Return Cup 

Our very own Refill Return cup is currently live across our home city of Bristol. The scheme allows customers to borrow and return a cup at participating coffee shops across the city. It launched in June 2023 and uses a time-based penalty system that’s managed using the existing and free Refill app (which already has over 500,000 downloads and 11,000 active monthly users). Participants give their card details, but are only charged if they don’t return their cup. This reduces the barrier of having to pay a deposit and makes it easier to manage across multiple traders.  

City to Sea chose Circular&Co.’s Circular Returnable Cup for its premium look and feel, and smart, durable design. Each cup has a unique QR code so it can be scanned in and out when borrowed and returned. This combined with the use of the app means the system is fully trackable and enables effective communication with participants. They can be notified when their cup is due for return. Both City to Sea and customers can measure their individual and collective impact.  

Participating cafés pay a monthly subscription fee. This covers the cost of the cups as well as the logistical support, training and marketing to promote the scheme along with all point-of-sale materials and collection bins. The launch was supported by an integrated awareness campaign which included targeted paid and organic social activity, out of home and print advertising and a media campaign. 

A core part of the project was the testing of behaviour change tactics and messaging. City to Sea ran focus groups at different stages to gain insights into initial perceptions, concerns, barriers and motivations. The initial findings were used to design the pilot scheme, informing everything from the name, messaging, branding and process.  

Key insights  

  • Although the pilot was supported by a dedicated PR and marketing campaign, conversion from awareness to app downloads was lower than hoped. Incentives like half-price coffees boosted uptake. 
  • Reliance on tech and needing to sign up to an app can be a barrier to uptake. The user journey of app sign up and QR code scanning should be as straightforward and simple as possible. 
  • Lack of space and differing set ups in cafés restricted point of sale material. Working with each coffee shop to meet its individual needs is important for communicating at key user touchpoints. 
  • Engaged baristas who actively talk to customers about the scheme are key to its success. Training sessions and employee incentive schemed are recommended. 
  • During busy periods, baristas can’t chat to customers. Having scheme ambassadors on the ground to talk to customers in the queue during these times is helpful. 
  • Getting the right scheme branding across all materials, and the correct cup design, is key.  

Find out more: https://www.refill.org.uk/refillreturncup/  

The University of Bath  

The University of Bath is running a semi-open scheme accros the Semi-open scheme across the university campus outlets. The scheme works by charging students £3 to ‘buy into’ the scheme and get a reusable cup. The system is managed manually, and the initial £3 investment is non-refundable which keeps managing the system as simple as possible for bar / café staff.  

After finishing their drink, students  return the cup and can either exchange it for another clean cup, or for a token so they don’t need to carry the cup around. Every time they use the system, they receive a 20p discount on their hot drink, which incentivises uptake.  

Except for 1 outlet at the sports arena, all campus outlets have removed the single-use cup option, with crockery available for drink in. 

  • Impact:  7-8,000 cups distributed. The University aims to collect cups at the end of the academic year when students leave their accommodation.  
  • Benefits: The scheme was received positively by students.   
  • Learning: Staff were not fully prepared for roll-out and more training was needed.  Marketing and communications were done on a minimal budget and included an Instagram reel by students, website updates and posters.   
  • Learnings: Quickly established the best ways for redistributing cups around campus. The only complaint was why were smoothie cups still single-use! 

Find out more: https://www.bath.ac.uk/announcements/removing-disposable-cups-on-campus/  

Highland Cup Movement Scotland  

Funded through the Bring It Back Fund, the Highland Cup Movement is piloting a large-scale, open reusable cup scheme in the Highlands linked to the route of the iconic NC500. The scheme is being delivered in collaboration with North Coast 500, Zero Waste Scotland, and Highland Good Food Partnership and will capture valuable insights in encouraging reuse and removing barriers to reusable packaging in the hospitality industry. 

The system operates using a time based penalty, changing customers £4 if the cup is not returned and is managed using the Vytal app and QR coded cups.  There are currently 22 independent businesses (cafes, a campsite, a bakehouse, delis, restaurants, mobile vans and visitor attractions signed up) to the scheme.  

Ahead of the launch, an innovative communications campaign was been implemented across a range of channels, incorporating digital ‘DAX’ advertising, out of home advertising in train stations, social media promotions, press releases, travel influencer sponsored posts, blogs, and the distribution of promotional leaflets in tourism destinations and accommodation facilities.   


  • The pilot has been progressing well with over 900 cups checked out through the Vytal app since April 2023.   
  • So far they have had a 92% return rate returned within the 14 day period. Some cups do still make their way back into the system after 14 days. The return rate does not account for these cups.  
  • A full evaluation of the scheme is due at the end of the pilot.  

Find out more: https://www.keepscotlandbeautiful.org/cup-movement/choose-to-reuse/highland-cup-movement/  

Monmouth Coffee Company, London  

Monmouth Coffee Company are running a deposit scheme across three of their cafes in London. They are charging a £5 deposit using a manual system and have chosen the Ecoffee Cups for the scheme. Significantly, they have removed single-use and made returnable the default. 

  • Learnings: Customers started to bring their own cups in and adjust to the scheme quicker than anticipated meaning the initial cup order was larger than had been immediately necessary. Interestingly, more customers have opted to have their drink in the café which is good for business but has created more washing up of ceramic cups. 
  • Impact: 70% return rate & 30% loss rate for cups  
  • Challenges: The washing of the cups due to extra volume of dishwashing and ensuring the dishwashing chemical mix was correct.  

Find out more: https://www.monmouthcoffee.co.uk/shops/  


For more examples and case studies, download our case study appendix which supports the in-depth blueprint

Shrewsbury Cup 

Shrewsbury Cup is the UK’s pioneering cup scheme, operating across Shrewsbury with 20+ independent cafes involved. The scheme operates using a manual deposit whereby a customer is charged £1 when they purchase their coffee and receive it in a returnable cup which can be dropped off at multiple locations, where it is collected and washed ready to use again. Participating cafes pay a subscription fee.  When a new café signs up they give 2 months membership back to fund free coffees as this allows people to give it a go at no cost.  

What’s worked: 

  • Visit cafes regularly to encourage ongoing staff engagement. Keep cups visible on the counter. Ensuring customers do not have to queue twice (once to get the drink, then to return the cup).
  • Challenges: Ensuring ongoing engagement from café staff. People therefore need to be aware of the scheme before they come into the café so that all reliance is not placed on café staff to engage customers.  EPOS refund charging issues have been an issue with multiple traders as has customers having to queue a second time to return their cup.
  • Next steps: Planning to introduce an App system to run alongside the existing deposit scheme. The app aims to overcome issues with charges for refunds on cards and reliance on cash for refunds. 

Find out more: https://www.shrewsburycup.co.uk/  

Download the Returnable Cup Guide

A blueprint for setting up and running a successful returnable cup scheme

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Thank you to our CONTRIBUTORS 

In the researching and creation of this guide, we’ve spoken to more than 20 industry experts, leading reuse brands and businesses. It’s a testament to the willingness of those working within this space to unite and share their experiences to progress wider industry change.

We’re grateful to everyone who shared their time, learnings, insights and challenges to help us make this information available to other organisations. Thank you to our contributors and case studies at:

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