KeepCup Co-founder and Managing Director Abigail Forsyth tells BeanScene why systemic change is required to truly address the problem of coffee cup waste and the takeaway mentality.
Though KeepCup celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2019, it has only been in the last few years that consumers and the industry have caught up with its message of single-use waste reduction.
“Ten years ago, people didn’t know that disposable coffee cups weren’t recyclable and the massive plastic waste problem we are now facing globally wasn’t really being discussed,” says Abigail Forsyth, Co-founder and Managing Director of KeepCup.
“But people have woken up to the issue, realised that single-use plastic – indeed all avoidable single-use items – are a huge problem, and that these little coffee cups contain plastic.”
When the waste dilemma was raised to prominence in Australia by the 2017 ABC television series War on Waste, the café industry was quick to respond to the coffee cup crisis.
“People are looking hard at the volume of waste they are producing, and disposable coffee cups have become a large part of that conversation because they are something you do not actually need,” Abigail says.
KeepCup is not the only organisation to attempt to address coffee cup waste, with numerous companies launching compostable, recyclable, or reusable options. However, Abigail feels some of these initiatives fail to prevent waste from going to landfill.
“Many cafés survive on takeaway sales, which are a huge part of their revenue, so they are desperate for an answer,” Abigail says.
“They’d like to do the right thing, and compostable cups present themselves as a solution, but most of the time they’re not actually composted. They need a dedicated waste stream going to the right facilities, very few of which exist in Australia. And as Australia burns, reducing impact on native forest for paper pulp is critical.”
The Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation Working Group 2018 Report says only an estimated 18 per cent of councils have, or plan to have, kerbside organics collection, and even fewer of these accept compostable packaging. Abigail says the compost generated from plant-based packaging is often considered low quality.
“In composting, you’re trying to produce good organic material so when it goes to the farm, it will improve the soil and grow more crops. You won’t get much of that if you feed compost machines with cardboard and plant-based plastic, so you haven’t really solved any problems. Instead, you’ve just found another way to create rubbish,” Abigail says.
From a manufacturing perspective, Abigail says compostable cups carry a significant carbon footprint to just produce and distribute. KeepCup carried out a peer-reviewed lifecycle analysis in 2018, which compared KeepCups with two single-use cups – compostable and paperboard – and two other reusable cups – bamboo and polypropylene. It took 10 uses for a KeepCup to have a lower carbon footprint than a compostable alternative, compared to 24 uses for KeepCup to have a lower impact than a standard disposable paperboard cup.
“On average, any end product represents about 5 per cent of the raw materials used to make it. When you look at single-use products and multiply that out over volume, it becomes quite substantial,” Abigail says.
Ultimately, Abigail says many of these solutions don’t address the root cause of coffee cup waste – the takeaway mentality that has become commonplace with Australian café customers.
“In the end, any disposable coffee cup is still a single-use item. Using a different material for single-use items is not changing the behaviour that we need to change, which is avoiding single-use items in the first place. You’re swapping out one resource for another, but you’re still using a lot of resources,” Abigail says.
“With KeepCup, you’re using less resources because you’re reusing the same products over and over again.”
While reusable cup loan schemes produce less waste than disposable cup systems, Abigail says they also do little to influence consumer behaviour.
“There is no one solution to the problem, but they are again an attempt to preserve that convenience culture. We are advocating for a society where we step away from hyper consumption, and that is through individual ownership of the product,” Abigail says.
She adds the government could play a larger role in altering consumer behaviour. In 2018, the United Kingdom Government proposed a ‘latte levy’ of 25 pence on every coffee purchased in a disposable cup in an effort to curb waste. Meanwhile in Australia, governments in Victoria, South Australia, and the Australian Capital Territory have implemented bans on various forms of single-use plastic – lightweight shopping bags in particular – with the latter two singling out disposable coffee cups as likely future additions. Abigail says a disposable cup ban would force the behavioural change needed in consumers.
“In Australia, the most important thing that needs to happen is the government setting a strong direction and policy that puts deadlines on the things the industry has already started doing,” Abigail says.
“New laws would cause it to happen overnight. When something is banned, people’s behaviour changes immediately. But the government will always wait for social licence before they move. The role of the consumer, the public, and business is to be a voice to demand that change.”
In the meantime, the industry is able to promote this cause by discussing the issue with its consumers and identifying the alternatives. In recent years, KeepCup has had this conversation with a broader audience by widening its range to cater for a variety of different beverages.
“We try to meet the consumer at how they drink their beverage, whether it be a long black or a smoothie, so they’re not just using KeepCup because it’s the right thing to do, but because they prefer drinking from it,” Abigail says.
“For example, we’re about to launch a double-walled stainless-steel KeepCup. This addition to our range creates more uses for the cup and keeps beverages hotter or cooler for longer. We’ve also got more iterations down the track that will aim to replace more single-use products with reusable alternatives.”
While the government is yet to set guidelines around disposable coffee cup usage, Abigail suggests Australian’s coffee culture could come to emulate its Italian heritage, where people stand around and enjoy their coffee before moving on, rather than always drinking it on the go.
“Not long ago, people were free to smoke in cafés, pubs, and restaurants, and it seemed inconceivable that they would ban it, because it was so associated with going there,” Abigail says.
“Gradually, the social acceptance of smoking declined and finally, the government acted. I see the same thing happening with single-use packaging.”
This article appears in the December 2019 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.
For more information, visit www.keepcup.com.au