25. November 2020 | Food Service Equipment, Interview, What´s new in Retail

Cologne startup VYTAL develops first digital reusable packaging-as-a-service solution

by Julia Pott (exclusively for EuroShop.mag)

A young man in a polo shirt against a green background

© VYTAL

Picking up a quick dinner to-go on your way home in single-use cardboard or plastic packaging? It’s a solution that makes life more convenient and has become an inherent part of city centers. The founders of the VYTAL Company found a way to make this convenient aspect more environmentally friendly. They created a digital and deposit-free reusable packaging system for takeout, delivery, and convenience food.

We spoke to Tim Breker, co-founder and managing director of the startup VYTAL, and found out how the reusable packaging solution works and how retailers can benefit from it, and learned about the company’s plans for the future.

Tim, why is your company so excited about a reusable packaging system?

Convenience foods, to-go meals, delivery services – these are major trends we believe will continue to shape the future. The ongoing COVID-19 crisis and its subsequent packaging waste has received a lot of attention as a result.

That is why we believe reusable packaging solutions have their place and a big role to play in this setting. Of course, single-use items are a better option in some cases. However, reusable packaging is naturally suited wherever food is freshly prepared in foodservice or by retailers at salad bars, hot food counters, pasta bars, and whenever you have bulk food at refill stations and in bulk departments. We see increasing demand for our solution from many segments.

Two smartphones, one with a QR code

© VYTAL

How do consumers use your solution?

Our digital reusable packaging system works with an app. Consumers register in our VYTAL app and access the partners – retailers or restaurants – that offer our reusable bowls. The download and use are free. If the customer picks up a meal in the VYTAL bowl at one of the partner companies, the consumer’s personal QR code on the smartphone and the code on the bowl get scanned. Customers have 14 days to then return the bowls to any participating facility at no cost. If they have exceeded the return time period, customers are charged a fee of ten euros via their provided payment method, which means they purchased the bowl.

What must retailers do if they want to participate and implement your reusable system?

Our participating partners simply download the partner version of the app at no charge. We charge partners a transaction fee per bowl filling, which is how we finance the system. Right now, we charge 20 cents for a standard size lunch bowl.

We only ask the participating companies to rinse the bowls. (We only have a few exceptions, which includes Rewe stores, where we offer a designated cleaning service.)

Our app works on iOS or Android devices, which means our partners only need a commercial mobile device, which they can also lease from us. After onboarding, they receive the bowls along with marketing materials and are ready to go after a few short days.

A reusable bowl from VYTAL on a salad counter

More than 30,000 bowls made of plastic polypropylene are in current circulation. They have a positive eco-balance after the tenth use, explains Tim Breker. The manufacturer guarantees the bowls can be used at least 200 times. The digital system creates real-time transparency. © Rewe

You already collaborate with several retailers.

That’s right. Our partners include Rewe supermarkets, Edeka stores, and basic Biomarkets, in addition to several bulk stores. Salad bars, self-service hot food counters, and in-store restaurant concepts are typical applications.

A returnable bowl from VYTAL on a supermarket scale

© Rewe

Why should partners in retail and food service join VYTAL?

They will use less disposable packaging, which is good for the environment. This also helps their wallet because disposable – especially biodegradable – packaging has become more expensive.

Humans crave convenience by nature and often need powerful incentives to prompt a change in behavior. How do you persuade your customers to use your solution?

We convince them by making reusable packaging as easy, convenient, and free to use as single-use items, and by adding more benefits such as high-quality packaging and extra digital services. What helps our case is that there is a sense of urgency around sustainable solutions and packaging waste reduction.

Our partners also make a positive difference in this setting as many of them share their enthusiasm about our system with their customers.

Last but not least, our user app is a very effective motivational tool since it gives us a direct communication channel with consumers and allows us to reward them for their behavior change.

I looked at your homepage and saw that you currently have 445 partners all over Germany. Am I correct in assuming that the system only becomes highly attractive to consumers if they have many choices in their area?

Yes and no.

It’s true, the advantage of this open system lies in the network effect: the more partners participate, the more options the consumer has to borrow and return bowls, making the approach even more attractive.

© VYTAL

However, some applications show the system has many advantages even without a dense network. Apart from city food services, we also have company cafeterias in our partner network. Examples, in this case, show our system is popular and well-received. Company employees use their VYTAL bowl to pick up their lunch in the cafeteria, the nearby supermarket or restaurant. They can take any leftovers home with them in the leak-proof and microwave-safe bowl and return it the next day. Employers lease our return boxes, allowing employees to drop off their dirty bowls, and eliminating the need to personally return them to the original partner.

Having said that, our primary goal is expansion and network densification. If you want to set up a global reusable system – and that is our aspiration since packaging waste is a worldwide problem – we believe there is no better place than Germany to embark on this endeavor. Germany has decades of experience in reusable packaging systems and can thus be a trailblazer since consumers already have a heightened awareness about reuse and recycling.

Speaking of goals: What are your plans for the future?

We are continuously expanding the range of digital product functions. For example, consumers can now use the app to preorder food or have it delivered – in VYTAL bowls, of course.

Basically, any type of reusable packaging can be integrated into our system. We are not limited to bowls. Right now, we are piloting sushi packaging and coffee cups. We are also planning to launch pizza packaging.

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