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Save a cup, save the environment

Bringing your own reusable cup to buy takeaway drinks helps cut down on single-use plastic. But what if you forget to bring it one day?

Reusable AYA cups made from cassava starch at a coffee shop in HCM City. — Photos courtesy of AYA Cup

AYA Cup, an exchange cup system for takeaway, lends reusable cups made from cassava starch with a deposit of VND50,000 (US$2.1) for each cup. Customers can return the cups at any coffee shop which partner with AYA and get back the deposit.

Le Thuy Linh, AYA Cup CEO, wants to change the image of Vietnam from being one of the top five ocean-polluting countries to an innovative country in tackling single-use plastic in food and beverage.

“Inspired by the circular economy, AYA CUP is the first lending cup network in Southeast Asia that helps businesses save costs and create an exciting experience for users to save the world - one cup at a time,” she said.

The amount of plastic packaging has surged along with the growing trend of food and drink delivery in recent years. Up to 27 tonnes of plastic and Styrofoam are generated in Vietnam each year from the food delivery and takeaway industry.

It is estimated each food and drinks business household in Vietnam spends on average VND10 million ($435) every month on single-use packaging. The expense might be much more depending on the number of customers.

Coffee shops in collaboration with AYA Cup need to pay a fixed monthly membership fee of only VND400,000 ($17.3). The cup supply is unlimited depending on their demand.

The problem of managing packaging expenses was easily solved.

The shops only need to collect the reusable cups from customers and wash them to hand over to the next customers. AYA Cup staff visit the shops every month to check and refill the cups.

Launched in August 2019, the start-up lends cups to about 20 coffee shops located close to each other in Thao Dien Area, HCM City’s District 2. Customers order about 100 to 200 cups per day at each store.

Le Thuy Linh, AYA Cup CEO and her reusable cups.

Multiple lives

Imagine the first 'A' in AYA is the beginning of a cup’s life cycle and 'Y' is the end of its cycle. A life cycle of a single-use plastic item lasts about 12 minutes on average from when users start to drink and then throw it away. 

The start-up's second 'A' represents a complete cycle that brings multiple lives for one product.

All of the cups made by local manufacturers can be reused many times, not only eliminating single-use plastic but also saving costs for cafes.

Linh estimated the shops can save up to 30 to 40 per cent in the number of cups they need to use when they partner with AYA.

On average, coffee shops spend VND1,000 on each plastic cup and VND3,000-4,000 on a paper cup. The cafe Bin’s Coffee can save more than VND2 million per month for packaging costs by using AYA cups, she said.

“I realise that coffee shop owners and customers have a great interest in our idea and are open to give it a try. It proves that the circular economy model of AYA Cup helps reduce single-use plastic waste in the operation process instead of having to wait until the waste is collected and recycled.”

Linh said AYA Cup is operated on a zero-waste system with eco-friendly material of cassava, which is a root growing in harsh soil conditions in southern Vietnam and requires little to no water. The resin compound of cassava starch and polypropylene reduces the cup’s decomposing time to two years instead of hundreds of years.

With the target of reducing 6,000 plastic cups per year, Linh is ambitious to cut 20 per cent of plastic waste in Vietnam by 2025 by expanding her cup-lending system in HCM City where she lives and in Hanoi where she was born and raised.

The start-up also plans to collaborate with event organisers to supply reusable cups as they did with Epizode music festival in Phu Quoc last year. 

The biggest difficulty for green growth start-ups is removing barriers with customers, as many hesitate to use environmentally-friendly products due to high costs and doubts over their benefits to the environment, Linh said.

AYA Cup won the United Nations Environment Programme’s 2020 Asia-Pacific Low Carbon Lifestyle Challenge and received funding of $10,000. The success has offered the firm more opportunities with training, business mentoring and technical analysis of environmental impacts.

AYA Cup was also among 115 first Vietnamese enterprises registered in the Climate Business Index initiative launched by the United Nations Development Programme and Vietnamese Ministry of Planning and Investment.

With Climate Business Index, a voluntary registration system for private companies, companies can self-test and decide on what needs to be done in the future to achieve their aims of reducing greenhouse gas emission and addressing climate change impacts.

“Many customers and coffee shops are more aware of reducing single-use plastic. We can see young people use tumblers for takeaway drinks. Coffee shops step by step switch from plastic cups to cups made from sugarcane leftovers.

“Plastic waste is not a problem of one brand or one stakeholder. We believe in collaboration where big corporations put aside their egos, shake hands and work together to solve this crisis,” Linh said.  VNS

Khanh Duong

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