Hands up who watched the ABC’s War on Waste? Keep them up if you hunted down a reusable coffee cup the next day. Thousands of Australians reacted to the show’s revelation about disposable coffee cups. It’s estimated Aussies throw away one billion single-use coffee cups every year. Host Craig Reucassel managed to jam 50,000 of those cups into a tram carriage and the theatre of that TV moment has driven Aussies into action.
Sales of re-usable coffee cups have exploded, from established brands to one-of-a-kind pottery cups.
The rise of the KeepCup
With her brother Jamie Forsyth, Abigail Forsyth founded KeepCup, in 2009. The Melbourne business had been steadily gaining momentum but War on Waste jolted Australians like a double shot espresso. In case you haven’t heard, after plastic bottles, coffee cups are the second-largest contributor to rubbish – they’re lined with a plastic film, making them particularly difficult to recycle. Many end up in the ocean where they disintegrate into fragments that marine life mistakes for food.
After these revelations, KeepCup HQ was hit with a 400 per cent increase in online sales. “Our business quadrupled overnight, “ says Abigail.
The original KeepCup is made of lightweight plastic. But for many coffee drinkers, plastic isn’t right for their daily ritual. So in 2014, KeepCup introduced a glass model. KeepCup’s Brewcup is made with tempered soda lime glass, a silicone lid and a plastic or cork band.
KeepCup has discerned different cultural perspectives after entering foreign markets. “In the US, it’s all about glass. They cannot reconcile plastic with quality, but in Europe they think why would you use glass? Plastic is a much better closed-loop material [post-consumer waste is collected, recycled and used to make new products]. In Australia, there’s a view that glass provides a more premium coffee experience. We say the best reusable cup is the one you actually use –whether it’s a jam jar or a giant thermos.”
What are the reusable cup options?
Plastic is the cheapest, lightest and most unbreakable material but its heat retention is not fantastic. Aside from KeepCup, there’s the funky Frank Green SmartCup, which is CaféPay enabled. There’s also Bodum’s Travel Mug, which is double-walled plastic with a silicone band but its height makes it tricky to fit under a coffee machine’s group head. Most plastic cups are BPA-free but not everyone wants to risk plastic leaching. Some aficionados also feel plastic changes the taste of their brew.
This is why some choose glass. KeepCup’s Brewcup is one option, but Australia has hatched a few small companies making their own nifty glass cups. JOCO Cups is an Aussie company that’s also selling in the US market. Its cups, which have won several design awards, feature hand-blown high-grade borosilicate glass that’s shock resistant and unlike soda glass will not be etched by coffee’s acids.
Another small glass player is SoL Cups, created by Bondi local Rebecca Veksler. These beautifully designed cups can be customised with coloured silicone sleeves and lids. They also come with a waterproof pouch to throw your cup into after use.
One of the better materials to temper heat loss is stainless steel. Klean Kanteen and Cheeki produce options that are smaller than the traditional thermos size but some still struggle to fit under a coffee machine’s group head. US-based Contigo produces several options – the one you’ll find most easily in Australia is a thermos-style large mug called the Autoseal West Loop. The lockable seal on these products is fantastic – it can be used with one hand and really does allow you to throw the mug in your bag – so they suit people on the go. It’s the chosen travel mug of one of the SBS Food team, and wins plenty of praise for the no-leak seal.
A hand-made and beautiful option is the new Claycup. The dream child of Sydney’s Pusher Espresso Bar owner Stephen Dyer and ceramicist Katherine Mahoney, ClayCups are crafted on a pottery wheel and take three weeks to produce (the ceramic cup is closed by a silicone lid). Katherine can’t make these cups quickly enough, so they’re about to dive into mould production in Victoria’s Bendigo to produce thousands of cups at a time.
Claycups is certainly one of the most environmentally responsible reusable cups, given, “you break a clay cup or throw it away and it goes back to earth – it is earth,” says Stephen. “The lid is silicone but that’s degradable and it’s not as harmful as plastic.”
On Queensland's Sunshine Coast, potter Renton Bishopric and his partner Clare Botfield make stunning cups that are sold in their own store in Eumundi and at a small list of shops across Australia.
"We started Pottery for The Planet a few years ago making limited edition pottery pieces to raise funds for environmental causes, like stopping the Coal Port development in Keppel Bay in Central Queensland," Bishopric tells SBS.
"More recently we decided to do something about the single use plastics issue and started making our reusable coffee cups to reduce waste and landfill, another cause that we are very passionate about!" They, too, have seen more interest in the wake of The War on Waste.
With so many options, which is best depends on what you use it for – for people driving or commuting, Contigo is great. For others grabbing a coffee from their local café, style or material may be the deciding factor. You can find more to help make your decision in a recent reusable cup review by Choice, which saw the KeepCup Original score the highest user rating of the nine cups reviewed, followed by the KeepCup Brew, the Avanti Go porcelain / silicone cup and the Cheeki stainless steel.
Who pays the price for change?
Many café owners are jumping behind the reusable cup cause thanks to the Responsible Cafes initiative, driven by café owners who want to offer a discount to consumers bringing a cup. The website lists more than 450 Australian cafés.
Cameron Stephens, Sales and Marketing Manager at Sydney’s Mecca Coffee, has another view. “There’s no denying it’s a great cause but it would be great if people felt like they were doing it not to get a discount… the discount model is not sustainable.”
So how much does one disposable coffee cup cost the café owner? Between 7c and 10c. “So if you’re giving a customer a 50c discount, the café owner is covering that extra 43c,” concludes Cameron. Abigail Forsyth agrees: “It’s dangerous to create an expectation that there ought to be a reward for doing the right thing. It can be a high penalty on small businesses.”
Social change never comes easily – there are winners and there are losers. Stephen Dyer of Claycups does offer a 40c discount for coffees in reusable cups in his Paddington café but he believes we all need to change our behaviour: “I‘m an environmentalist but I’m also a business owner – we need to attach more value to our actions and our environment. We’re at a pivotal point as a country – behavioural change is at the core of it, and this is a wonderful driver.”