Global shot at a greener coffee cup

05 Jun 2014

Author: Graham Readfearn

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The world loves take away coffee but with all that caffeine comes billions of wasteful disposable cups. Now an Australian-made reusable cup is cutting that waste in more than 30 countries and helping the planet, one coffee shot at a time.
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In the bedroom of Abigail Forsyth’s nine-year-old daughter is the first couch her parents ever bought.

“Growing up, for me, there was always that sense that you should buy once but buy well – and then keep those things,” remembers Forsyth. “Mum and dad are still sitting on the same couch they bought when we were kids.”

This philosophy was born well before the modern era of disposability, but it was nagging away in Forsyth’s conscience in 2009. That was the year she and her brother Jamie launched KeepCup – a Melbourne-based business making and selling reusable, solid plastic coffee cups. Since then, KeepCup has sold more than four million cups in 32 countries, preventing what Forsyth estimates to be three billion or more disposable coffee cups from being thrown away.

“That number sounds ridiculous,” says Forsyth, who remains CEO of KeepCup. “But then when you consider 500 billion disposable cups are consumed every year around the world, that means that 2.5 trillion disposable cups have been made and used in the time that we have been in business.”

The idea for the company emerged partly from guilt and partly from that common sense approach to using the world’s resources, instilled in her by her parents. In 2008, Forsyth owned and managed a chain of six convenience cafes with her brother Jamie.

“Ironically we were actually one of the first companies in Melbourne to sell coffee in disposable cups,” says Forsyth, 43. “But we saw the rise and rise of disposable cups and we could see the volume of packaging that we were going through.”

The disposable cups had plastic linings, meaning they could not be recycled even if customers wanted to. Some coffee fans were already bringing in their own reusable options, including tall metal insulated mugs. But Forsyth says many of the reusable options were too tall to fit under the “group head” of the coffee makers, meaning the coffee had to be poured into the reusable cup.

“If you knew anything about coffee you would never make it that way,” she says. “Pouring the coffee from one vessel to another destroys the creamy top on the coffee.”

With the help of a A$30,000 grant from the City of Melbourne, the brother and sister team commissioned an industrial designer to create a product that took visual cues from reusable cups but could be re-used, recycled and would not be energy intensive to make. While the product had to look good, Forsyth says the core business aim was always tied to environmental sustainability. She wanted to create a business that would cut the number of disposable cups being used, reduce landfill and encourage a culture of re-use rather than disposability.

When the product was initially launched some detractors commented that the product was “just a plastic cup”.

“But there’s enough plastic in 20 disposable cups to make one KeepCup,” says Forsyth. “So when people say they don’t like the idea of drinking out of plastic, well, they’re doing it anyway.”

“Australians I think do have a real sense of personal responsibility and a sense of what they can do to make things better,” she says. “We are solutions orientated. We just get on and do our bit. We do what we can.”

Researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne looked at the environmental impact of using a KeepCup instead of a disposable cup for one coffee a day for a year. Their findings helped confirm Forsyth’s environmental hopes. The study found using a KeepCup could cut “global warming potential” by as much as 92 per cent, reduce water use by up to 95 per cent and cut landfill by about 95 per cent when compared with using a normal disposable cup.

Mum-of-two Forsyth admits that when she initially launched KeepCup, she thought it might be a “lifestyle business” that she could operate from home while nurturing her young family. Now the business has an Australian HQ, an Australian manufacturing base and two international assembly and warehouse hubs – one in London and another in Los Angeles.

You can now buy KeepCups in thousands of independent cafes around the globe, as well as the famous Harrod’s department store in London, coffee chains in Sweden, Chile, Iceland, the United States, New Zealand and, of course, Australia.

“We really focus on the customer using the KeepCup so generally, they get sold because customers start asking for the product wherever they are,” she says.

“The Australian way of drinking coffee has been growing around the world and we have been following that trend,” she says. “It’s the light roast of the beans – the flat whites, espressos and lattes served in 8oz cups.”

The original design, first promoted at a market stall in Melbourne’s Federation Square, has barely changed. There are now three extra size options, the lid has been tweaked and a glass version has just been launched.

Forsyth knows the environmental success of KeepCup depends on customers using the product often enough to offset the energy that went into making it. Once a KeepCup is used 15 times, Forsyth says you have reached “break even” on energy use and waste. She says that for retailers, that also means they don’t have to pay for disposable cups to serve their coffee. But the environmental impacts don’t stop at the product itself.

Forsyth says that having assembly facilities in the US and the UK means the product can be shipped in pieces (the lid, cup and the grip band going around the side) using less space and less fuel for every KeepCup.

“We are now building to get that efficiency right within the business. It makes sense financially as well as environmentally.”

She revealed the company is also looking to work with some of its biggest customers – including many university campuses around the world – to help educate users and drive the re-use of KeepCups well beyond their break even point.

“We hope the universities and organisations can use that to really drive that re-use,” she says.

But there is another environmental impact, although it’s not as easy to measure. Forsyth says that using a KeepCup might be the first “environmental” purchase that a person makes – hopefully leading them to consider sustainability in other aspects of their lives.

“People have used KeepCups for all sorts of reasons,” she says.

“Maybe they just like how it looks. But a lot of people want to do the right thing and maybe sometimes they feel shut out. But KeepCup is a pretty easy way into that conversation.” BusinessSmalltile_Business.jpg