Unocup Founders Share Their Journey To A More Plastic-Free To-Go Coffee Cup

by Rudy Sanchez on 11/12/2020 | 4 Minute Read

Turning the ubiquitous to-go coffee cup into a sustainable vessel is no easy task. Heavy-hitters with deep pockets like McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Dunkin’ have explored ways to reduce the amount of plastic used to serve their patrons, but even the best of cups still require either a plastic liner or lid, the latter proving to be quite a challenge.

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But two industrious and future-forward entrepreneurs have Kobayashi-Maru’d the lid problem by designing a cup that doesn’t need one, calling it Unocup. Co-founders Tom Chan and Kaanur Papo turned to a crowdfunding campaign for capital, gaining both funds to bring their creation to market, but also promote the new to-go cup.

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So, how does it work? Well, Unocup maintains the tapered, round shape of a traditional drinking vessel but incorporates flaps at the top to fold together to function as a lid. You can use the cup with the flaps deployed or left open, allowing baristas to showcase latte art. When folded up, the top of Unocup provides a more ergonomic opening than a traditional lid. Plus, Unocups can be stacked and staged in the same way your regular cups are in a typical cafe.

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“The [Kickstarter] experience was great. Preparation for the campaign was quite intense; shooting videos, taking pictures, fleshing out our brand, contacting potential partners, etc. The process was rigorous, but we were glad our Kickstarter campaign had great feedback and response,” Tom said.

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The Unocup went through several iterations, in consultation with cafe owners, baristas, and customers, until finally coming to a solution that’s effective in real-world environments. Chan and Papo took into account how Unocups would get stored, assembly time, latte art, and, naturally, drinkability. To gain adoption, Unocup would have to meet or exceed the utility of the current coffee cup design paradigm. The single-use cups’ unique design would compel Tom and Kaanur to continue innovating, sometimes enlisting their partners.

“On the production side, producing a uniquely shaped and traditionally sealed paper cup has been uncharted territory for both of us and the manufacturers we’ve worked with. Right now, our focus is being able to produce the cup at scale to both fulfill our Kickstarter orders and begin test runs in interesting locations,” Papo said.

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Reducing the amount of plastic used in serving coffee has always been a goal of Tom’s and Kaanur’s. The first iteration of the Unocup does just that by eliminating the often non-recyclable plastic lid, though it still does use a conventional plastic liner to maintain integrity. 

And while even scrapping the lid can make a sizable dent in single-use plastic waste, the co-founders weren't content to stop right there, and they have successfully designed a 100% plastic-free version of the cup, a white whale for much of the coffee world.

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“Unocup is using a water-based coated material, allowing us to offer 100% plastic-free coffee [cup], which is definitely a game-changer. That makes Unocup backyard compostable and recyclable. It's compostable in any standard facility, unlike PE (polyethylene) and even common bioplastic alternatives like PLA (polylactic acid),” Kaanur said.

Since its 2015 conception, Unocup now looks to deliver the final product. The timing, of course, can’t help but take on significance as cafes across the world have stopped preparing patrons’ beverages in reusable serveware due to coronavirus. Post pandemic, some coffee shops and their customers may be slow to ditch single-serve cups over fears of getting sick.

With an acclaimed and sustainable design that is ready for market, Unocup is ramping up the operations side of the business, as well as expanding its market trials and sales. The interest generated and feedback received has shown the Unocup team that they have a promising hit on their hands.

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“It’s been extremely encouraging seeing the support and excitement from both people and industry since we launched the Kickstarter. We are a small team taking on a big mission, so seeing how much the public believes in our goals has inspired us to keep pushing forward,” Kaanur said.

“We are still working towards our launch,” he added. “As of now, there has been great interest from both distributors and companies from across the globe. But one of the primary things we are preparing for is having a supply chain that can properly meet that demand.”

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