Do you enjoy a great coffee, but don’t like the impact of disposable cups on the environment? Youna Angevin-Castro speaks to Abigail Forsyth, co-founder of KeepCup, an Australian company that has created a customisable, machine washable plastic cup that combines form and function to create a sustainable, reusable – and beautiful – alternative for your take away coffees.
It’s a known fact that Australians love coffee. In 2008, Australians consumed an average of three kilograms of coffee per capita per year, and according to Datamonitor’s ‘Hot Drinks in Australia to 2013’ report, one in seven coffees consumed by Australians is consumed away from home. But while coffee consumption continues to grow, so does the environmental impact of the ubiquitous takeaway coffee cup.
Disposable paper coffee cups traditionally found at cafés around the country are a huge contributor to landfill. Made of bleached paperboard, they are generally laminated with a plastic resin called polyethylene, which prevents the cups from being recycled. Once in landfill, the decomposition of the paper leads to the release of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases.
Launched in 2009, the KeepCup was developed by brother and sister team, Abigail and Jamie Forsyth, who sought to find a solution to this significant environmental problem.
“My brother and I were running some cafés in Melbourne, and I was always concerned about the volume of disposable cups that we were buying in as a business,” Abigail said.
“But the issue really hit home one day while I was watching my two-year old daughter drinking her milk from her sippy cup. It dawned on me that I had a takeaway coffee every morning at work and then every afternoon, served up in a disposable takeaway cup. Imagine if I gave her milk in a paper cup, and then threw it in the bin…that would just seem terrible, yet that’s exactly what I was doing myself.”
Realising she probably wasn’t alone in her thinking, Abigail set about looking for a re-usable cup to sell in the shop.
“I just couldn’t find one that I would want to drink from, and that wouldn’t compromise the quality of our coffee because it was too big, or too difficult to fit under the group heads of the coffee machine,” Abigail said.
Toying with the idea of manufacturing their own cup, Abigail says they had some concerns whether people would in fact use it.
“We didn’t know if people would be bothered to wash it. Then we found a nice red soup mug, and we decided to trial it that winter for our soups. We found that 15 per cent of our customers reused the soup mug, which led to the realisation that if we got the design of the product right and promoted it the right way, we had market.”
In October 2007 they paired up with Melbourne-based industrial designers Cobalt Niche, and the KeepCupR was born. The design process was a lengthy one:
“We were new to the manufacturing process, and a lot of it was trial and error,” Abigail said.
“The lid took a particularly long time, because we wanted a single use mechanism – we didn’t want a screw cap or anything because we wanted people to be able to drink from the cup with the lid off if they wanted to. That alone took a long time to get extended use, and involved many hours of Jamie popping the lid on and off, and on and off, and on and off. It was arduous, but worth it in the end.”
With the help of a City of Melbourne Business Development grant, and another grant from Design Victoria, the KeepCup was launched in June 2009. Testing the retail waters at the Federation Square Design Market, the KeepCups were a sell-out, imbueing Abigail and Jamie with the confidence that they were onto a good thing.
“We had four different coloured cups and we were bombarded – we sold 1000 cups in six hours! People were coming along saying, ‘I’ve been thinking about this, this is my idea’ or ‘I don’t even know what it is and I want one, I just love the colours’. It was a real high that day because we knew that we had developed something that people had been thinking about and they were concerned about.
“It also showed the breadth of our audience. We assumed that our target audience would be people in their 20s and 30s, but there were a lot of people in their 40s and 50s who, I guess, had witnessed the rise and rise of the disposable cup and the burgeoning waste problem and were concerned about it. So I see the KeepCup being used by all sorts of people, which is just fantastic.”
Although it may seem counter-intuitive to think that a plastic cup is a more sustainable choice, the figures suggest otherwise. According to finding of an independent Life Cycle Assessment conducted by the Centre for Design at RMIT, over a 12 month period, a KeepCup will use half the carbon, one third of water use, and half the energy use of a disposable cup.
“Those figures reduce further over the expected lifespan of the KeepCup of four years,” Abigail said.
“They’re dishwasher safe, they’re microwave safe, and we’ve designed them deliberately from single component plastic so that they can go into the kerbside recycling and be pulled apart into single components.”
KeepCups come in four sizes, including an 8oz, a 12oz and a large 16oz cup. The 4oz ‘XS’ KeepCup, designed for espresso shots, was launched earlier this year.
“We’re also looking at developing a more premium range to be released toward the end of the year.”
Next on the agenda is expanding the cup’s distribution into overseas markets.
“We’ve got an office in London now, so we’re trying to introduce the cup into the UK market. The other place we seem to be getting a bit of momentum is in Canada and the US, where the 3rd wave coffee movement is starting to really take hold.
“We’ve also appointed a distributor in Taiwan. There is a huge issue with landfill with their population of 24 million people on that tiny island. On May 1 of this year, as a measure to encourage people to stop using disposable products, they legislated that if people provide a reusable cup or container, the café is legally obliged to offer a discount.”
Abigail believes it won’t be long before the global concern for sustainable alternatives takes hold, and the KeepCup catches on worldwide.
“In Australia we had that perfect collision of a positive attitude to sustainability a vibrant design community and a really strong coffee culture, so it was kind of the combination of all those three factors which has made it so instantaneously catch on.”
KeepCups are available for purchase online at www.keepcup.com