KeepCup On A Mission To Eliminate Disposable Coffee Cups

by Rudy Sanchez on 01/21/2020 | 5 Minute Read

Every morning, bleary-eyed baristas begin setting up their shops and stands, firing up machines, brewing and preparing caffeinated elixirs, preparing for the morning rush of customers. 

A typical cafe will go through hundreds of cups and lids on a single morning, amounting to 16 billion disposable coffee cups getting used every year; nearly none of them are recyclable, as paper cups come with a plastic lining. While some chains—whose outlets make up the lion’s share of the over 35,000 specialty cafe outlets in the US—are working on less-bad versions of the to-go cup, the best and most sustainable way to drink your caffeine fix is from a quality reusable container. Drinks stay hotter for longer, and a single reusable vessel has the potential of diverting hundreds of cups from landfills and oceans.

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According to the National Coffee Association, 63% of Americans drink java juice, and Yanks aren’t the only ones fond of the dark and caffeine-laden elixir. In Australia, an even higher percentage of the populace drinks coffee every day (75%). All that bean brew getting consumed has created an unfortunate side effect—growing heaps of disposed of single-use coffee cups, whether it is an iced coffee or the piping hot stuff.

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While the sheer volume of disposable coffee cups used is hard to visualize for many, baristas bear witness to the visceral reminder of the waste generated by our love of coffee daily, as they touch every single-use cup they hand off to their customers. They are keenly aware of the advantages disposable cups have, why patrons prefer them, and the shortcomings of the current reusable cups on the market. Two former Melbourne baristas, Abigail and Jamie Forsyth, saw a need to lead a change in behavior and started selling their barista-designed reusable containers—KeepCup.

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First off, the Forsyths took into consideration the cafe environment when designing KeepCup. “We designed the products to fit under the group heads of the espresso machine, and the internal volumes are the same as disposable cups, so you get the dosage of milk and coffee correct," Abigail says. "The lid is press-on, so in a fast service environment, it can just go on without having to screw something together, which wastes time. Also, it doesn’t need to get heated, unlike other thermos cups."

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To Abigail, one of the barriers to reusable cup adoption comes from consumers not wanting to inconvenience the cafe. In bustling coffee shops with a long queue of customers waiting in line, it’s easy to succumb to peer pressure, real or imagined, and present a reusable cup that has the potential to disrupt and slow down the flow of coffee. One of KeepCup’s goals has been to remove some of that friction to encourage uptake of reusable cups.

With so many consumers broadcasting their lives through social media, it isn’t enough that a reusable cup or bottle promises functionality and quality, you also have to live and die by the ‘gram. Companies like S’well have tapped into that desire to go sustainable in style with their beautiful water bottles available in a variety of sizes and styles. KeepCup’s range of reusable coffee cups also leverages the need for a personal and thoughtfully designed replacement to disposables. KeepCup’s design also attracts attention and subtly encourages other people in line to adopt a reusable cup, even if it’s a Facebook flex.

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Another way KeepCup encourages ditching disposable coffee cups is through the 1000s of different combinations available to customers. KeepCup offers different sizes, materials, and colors that you can mix and match to suit almost every coffee drinker. Along with their own designs, KeepCup’s website has a “build-your-own” option, where customers can assemble a container to their liking by choosing the size, cup type, and colors for the plug, lid, cup, and band. The modular nature of KeepCup’s design also means that a lost or damaged component can get replaced without pitching the whole cup into the trash bin and buying a new one.

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Other approaches, such as shops offering a discount incentive for customers that bring in their own cup isn’t the ideal approach, according to Abigail. “In most cafes, margins are super tight, it’s a difficult industry to be in, so if you’re having to give a discount to people bringing in a reusable, it doesn’t make financial sense for most cafes to do that,” she says. “What we found in Australia is that people were thinking ‘well, I’m doing the right thing, so I’m entitled to be given something.’ What we prefer to see is a penalty; if you want a disposable, you have to pay extra.”

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Editorial photograph

Incentivizing reusable alternatives by passing along the cost of single-use items to consumers has been tested with plastic shopping bags and some governments, such as Ireland and the California city of Berekely, and you can apply a similar model with coffee cups.

Ultimately, the plastic crisis requires everyone to pitch in. Cafes can make it harder for consumers to keep using paper cups, and governments can set environmental agendas and priorities by shifting the cost of a single-use cup onto consumers; in the end, we need to adopt more sustainable habits, including drinking coffee from a reusable container.

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“There’s no end date," Abigail adds. "It’s a journey. It keeps going on, and the more inclusive you are on that journey, the more people you bring on board."

Switching to a reusable mug may seem like a small change, especially in the face of a seemingly insurmountable environmental problem, but Abigail sees those kinds of changes as a way to get consumers to think more broadly about how they can reduce their impact on the planet. "If you start using reusable cups, you think about the other things you can do as well, and what other disposable things you can avoid using,” Abigail says.

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