REWE is the first food retailer in Germany to offer a free takeaway-and-return system for salad bar utensils. Its cooperating partner is Cologne start-up Vytal, which operates a deposit-free, digital takeaway-and-return system for containers. The concept, which has been adapted to the special requirements of a supermarket, is first being tested at five locations in Cologne. Ready-made meals cause the most takeaway rubbish in Germany, with the majority of it coming from the bowls, boxes, cups and plates that are used to transport meals once only. Roughly 2,200 REWE branches across the country have a salad bar, which are used by customers millions of times each year.
The centrepiece of the takeaway-and-return system is a sturdy plastic bowl which can be sealed with a matching leakproof lid. The bowl has a capacity of 1,250 ml and is dishwasher- and microwave-safe. What is special about the system is that it functions entirely without any deposit. The bowl is loaned out using a free app, although users can obtain their bowl by other means as well. The way it works is like this: the “key” to the reusable bowl is a personal QR code displayed in the app or on the customer’s physical card. The customer holds their code up to the reader at the bowl vending machine, takes the bowl from the dispenser tray and fills it up at the salad bar just as they normally would. The bowl’s tare weight is automatically subtracted when the contents are weighed at the till. Afterwards, the customer has 14 days to return the bowl free of charge.
The bowl does not have to be rinsed if it is returned within 24 hours. Instead, it only has to be fully emptied, somewhat cleaned and tightly sealed. If the bowl is borrowed for longer, customers are asked to rinse it out with cold water. It also takes just a few steps to return the bowl. The customer scans the QR code on the lid, the sliding door on the returns machine opens by itself and the customer puts the bowl inside and closes the door. If the bowl is returned empty and with its lid, the loan is ended and the customer receives a return confirmation on their mobile phone. Customers can normally also return their borrowed, reusable bowls at any other partner that cooperates with Vytal and is displayed in the app. “We want to make reusability as easy as disposability,” explains Sven Witthöft, the start-up’s co-founder, describing the business idea. The company currently already has more than 200 partners, including in Cologne, Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and Freiburg.