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The odds are stacked in his favour: Sven Withöfft, Photography Thomas Schäkel / Stadtrevue
Re-use, re-model: Vytal’s office at Ursulaplatz, Photography Thomas Schäkel / Stadtrevue

Plastic saves the day

created by Thomas Riedel | |   digital cologne

In Germany, food packaging is creating no end of rubbish. But Cologne start-up Vytal aims to change all this. Its mission: to replace all single-use cutlery, plates and cups with reusable ones

There is hardly anywhere in downtown Cologne with a wider choice of lunchtime food than Barbarossaplatz, where you can find takeout from virtually every corner of the world. But whenever I’m there, I often end up at the French place around the corner. Huhnsgasse, a street somewhat removed from the hustle and bustle of Barbarossaplatz, is home to a small eatery aimed at lovers of quiche: Frau Maaß & Herr Schlie.

Ina Maaß and Kai Schlie have been running their small quiche restaurant since 2018. As Kai Schlie explains: “The idea was to cater for the lunch crowd”. Customers flock there between 11:00 am and 3:00 pm but, as there is very little seating, most people want their quiche to go. To begin with, they used sustainable disposal packaging made of bamboo. “That was expensive but still not quite right – it would soak up moisture and then begin to fall apart,” Schlie says. Which is why they were one of the first restaurants in Cologne to opt for Vytal.

“Vytal is a digital, deposit-free reusable system,” says Tim Breker, one of the three managing directors of the Cologne start-up, which now employs more than 60 people in Cologne, Paris and Vienna. Vytal is a platform that provides packaging to restaurant owners, who are also permitted to use their own containers. And they manage this like a kind of library system. Instead of a book, customers borrow a reusable plastic bowl with a lid. And instead of a shelf number on the spine of the book, there is a QR code that is scanned in whenever a bowl is borrowed. As Breker declares: “We’re not a product – we’re a solution”. The solution: reducing disposable containers. According to Breker, over 1.25 million items of disposal packaging were avoided in 2021 alone thanks to Vytal. And although that is ­certainly something to be proud of, he remains modest: “According to environmental and consumer protection association Environmental Action Germany, 800,000 single-use food containers, boxes, bowls and plates are used every hour in Germany. So there is still a very long way to go.” And that’s not even including the 320,000 disposable cups. Vytal’s aim is to eliminate all the disposable waste created by takeout and delivered food and to replace it with high-quality reusable packaging. Plastic and polystyrene disposable packaging has been banned in Germany since 3 July 2021, which may well give their efforts a significant boost in the future.

Inspiration for Vytal’s own start-up was the restaurant chain Vapiano. At the time, Breker was working at Cologne’s Mediapark and regularly got take-out food from there. As the restaurant’s disposable packaging was of very high quality and too good to throw away, Breker and his colleague Sven Witthöft wanted to reuse them next time they went there. However, the restaurant was not permitted to do this, as the law stated that food containers had to be cleaned in a commercial dishwasher. This made it clear

to them where the problem was. After changing jobs, Breker volunteered at cup deposit system Faircup, where he realised that getting customers to pay deposits on reusable cups was not a very efficient approach because it forced them to shell out more money to begin with. Breker and Witthöft then brainstormed possible ways to take deposits out of the equation and hit upon a sharing concept whereby customers don’t need to pay anything to use the Vytal containers but if they don’t return them within 14 days, they automatically buy them for 10 euros.

Armed with this new concept, Breker and Witthöft began their lean start-up method: they went into a department store, bought different reusable containers and tested them on restaurant owners and customers – with Mepal containers ultimately proving to be the most popular. The next step involved using the Media­­­park as a test laboratory. In September 2019, Breker and Witthöft stood outside a restaurant there with an iPad, asking people if they would be willing to register for a digital reusable system to avoid paying deposits. As there was no app at the time, they handed out 200 stamp cards on that day. As the first bowls were shared in the Mediapark, they began to develop the app for restaurants. The app for customers was also launched at the beginning of October, with the canteen of the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices in Bonn also on board.

March 2020 was full of ups and downs for the two founders. On the TV show “Höhle der Löwen” – the German version of “Dragons’ Den” – they received €450,000 for a 12.5 percent stake in the company. At the same time, restaurants were remaining shut owing to the coronavirus pandemic, effectively scuppering their previous “business lunch” user case. The young start-up succeeded in expanding its scope, growing by 10 percent every week. Vytal set up its own team of developers and received further investments amounting to a little over two million euros in February 2021.

And how does the start-up plan to earn money now? “What motivates us is that we are earning money by helping the environment,” says Breker. As well as an onboarding fee, restaurant owners pay 20 cents every time they use a bowl. Individual cities like Munich and (soon) Cologne are also expected to make a profit but ­Vytal has its sights set on further expansion: “By maximising our sales, we are also maximising the impact for the environment as entrepreneurs. And that’s what we want to do all over the country.”

Frau Maaß & Herr Schlie, the two beta test restaurant owners from Barbarossaplatz, are clearly impressed. Kai Schlie’s verdict: “It’s a great system that is both simple and hygienic”. 

(by Thomas Riedel)