Local startup ahead of the curve in embracing circular economy

As groups in Cleveland look to build the circular economy, some local businesses are ahead of the curve. Cafilia is a subscription service to local coffee shops that eliminates paper cup waste from coffee drinking.

Photo courtesy of Aleksandra Brankov.

Photo courtesy of Aleksandra Brankov.

Late last year, the City of Cleveland and Cleveland Neighborhood Progress announced the launch of Circular Cleveland, a two-year initiative to develop and implement circular economy strategies and programs in Cleveland. 

According to Sustainable Cleveland, the current economic model is linear and can be summarized as “take, make, waste.” Instead, a circular economy is “a comprehensive approach to provide community-wide benefits by designing waste and pollution out of our economic system and keeping products and materials in use as long as possible.”

Other cities in the U.S. implementing a circular economy include Charlotte, NC, New York City, Austin, TX and Phoenix, AZ. For Cleveland, the overarching goals of the project are to rebuild the economy and the environment.

The Circular Cleveland initiative is being funded by a $476,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as part of a $3 million program to address the intertwined issues of health, equity and climate change. It will take place over the next 28 months, explained Divya Sridhar, manager of climate resiliency and sustainability at Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, in a January meeting.

Some local businesses are ahead of the curve in embracing the circular economy. Founded by Aleksandra Brankov in July 2020, Cafilia is a subscription service to local coffee shops that eliminates paper cup waste from coffee drinking.

“It’s basically a two-sided platform just like Airbnb or ClassPass where we bring coffee drinkers and local independent coffee shops together in a better and easier way,” Brankov said. 

The market research Brankov did before officially launching Cafilia revealed that what keeps coffee drinkers from visiting more local, independent coffee shops is that generally they’re harder to find than chains like Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts.

Cafilia offers coffee drinkers the value of helping them discover local coffee shops to support because finding these local places isn’t always as easy as just searching “coffee” on Google Maps, Brankov said.

Photo courtesy Aleksandra Brankov.

Photo courtesy Aleksandra Brankov.

“On the coffee shop side, these coffee shops don’t have the marketing and the human resource power of Starbucks where they can get the brand out and people can hear about them,” Brankov said. “Cafilia helps bring that visibility and foot traffic they need that leads to more sales, upselling opportunities and customer relationships.”

With Cafilia, consumers select a coffee subscription for either 10, 15 or 20 coffees a month and receive an exclusive Cafilia travel mug to take to any of the local coffee shops in the Cafilia network to get refilled. Subscription prices vary depending on the number and type of coffee. 

The idea was born a couple winters ago while Brankov was at a retreat in Canada. She was inspired by the consistency of the people around her who brought travel mugs from home that they continuously refilled with coffee and tea, rather than using Styrofoam cups.

“I thought there has to be a better way to have people be this sustainable, but back in their regular weekly routines,” Brankov said. “I thought why not have people buy one cup and that cup becomes like their coffee wallet and they can use it to frequent the local coffee shops exclusively and therefore benefit local businesses versus the chains.”

Brankov began pursuing Cafilia full-time in the summer of 2019 and started by doing market research to understand coffee drinkers and local coffee shop owners. Using this data, she began building a business and marketing plan. She ended up finally launching on July 1, 2020, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic just as many people transitioned to working from home.

“The chains and bigger corporations were able to sustain themselves, even though they suffered a little bit, but at the end of the day, the ones getting hit the most were the local shops,” she said. “In some way, it couldn’t have been a better time to launch and have this big focus on supporting local as well as sustainability.”

In order to reduce the risk of exposure and contamination, some coffee shops, like Starbucks, banned the use of reusable coffee cups. But Brankov said the coffee shops in the Cafilia network have always been committed to sustainability and are still accepting Cafilia cups. Although some local coffee shops aren’t accepting reusable cups, most of them are now able to do so safely.

Brankov worked with a couple local agencies like Jumpstart and Bounce Innovation Hub’s Startup Accelerator program to help get Cafilia off the ground, but mostly it was a grassroots effort. In terms of Cafilia’s sustainability efforts, Brankov said she has saved about 700 cups, lids and sleeves from ending up in landfills — about 2,100 pieces of waste.

“With the cups, even though they’re paper they’re actually lined with plastic so liquid doesn’t pour out of them,” Brankov said. “So those really can’t be recycled. The lids are [also] made of plastic that’s hard to recycle and they really don’t get recycled. The sleeve could be recycled because it’s made of cardboard, but many times, you take that whole cup and you just throw it into the trash and it doesn’t get separated.”

Longterm, Brankov hopes to see Cafilia become the ClassPass for local coffee shops. ClassPass is a global subscription service for local fitness studios that can be used at any local fitness studio. While the coffee and fitness industries are two separate things, Brankov said their concepts are very parallel. 

In terms of immediate goals, Brankov hopes to continue growing Cafilia’s local coffee shop network and include as many local coffee shops in the Cleveland/Akron area as possible.

“I want to continue growing regionally and nationally, hopefully,” she said.

Maria McGinnis is a senior journalism major at Kent State University and an editorial intern at The Land.

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