“A house of cards”: Why KeepCup is taking a harder line on single-use items


KeepCup co-founder and managing director Abigail Forsyth. Source: supplied.

When KeepCup started in 2009, one of the main objections co-founder and managing director Abigail Forsyth faced was from cafe owners who said the company’s reusable cups would be unhygienic.

Now, as COVID-19 challenges health and safety protocols, the company is facing similar challenges as cafes across the country are opting to return to disposable cups.

Despite this, Forsyth says KeepCup — which is reported to have sold more than 10 million reusable cups with an annual revenue of $20 million as of June 2019 — will take a harder line on eradicating single-use packaging and disposable coffee cups in the future.

With 150 million tons of single use plastics in the world, she says there is a greater impetus to “promote reuse and reduce”.

“COVID-19 is a frightening glimpse of what is to come. Zoonotic diseases, which spread from animals to humans, climate change, loss of biodiversity, plastic oceans — they are all facets of how we co-exist with the natural system. This is a wakeup call to bring our economic and social systems back into line with earths finite resources.’  Forsyth tells SmartCompany.

“Single-use items are increasingly being banned in cities, states and countries around the world. We support this move and are increasingly advocating for it.

“While compostable single-use cups are often held up as a solution, they’re not. They perpetuate single-use, have a higher carbon footprint than other disposable coffee cups, and usually end up in landfill.

“They muddy the messaging. Equally, most single-use cups can’t be recycled. Less than 9% of all plastic ever made has been recycled.”

Forsyth believes successful cafes will see this as an opportunity to move away from single-use items.

“This has been a huge wakeup call to the extent of the change we need as a global society to prevent global warming,” she says.

“Disposable cups might promote convenience but, while we are all in lockdown, it is a good time to reflect on what that convenience is servicing.”

“Green strings attached to every dollar given out right now”

Forsyth says, like other retail and hospitality businesses, KeepCup has been hit significantly by COVID-19.

With offices in Melbourne Los Angeles and London, the company intends to use the JobKeeper wage subsidy payments for all its Australian employees.

Forsyth adds that she is anxiously reading the newspaper each day to see if the government is addressing climate change in its stimulus measures.

“There should be green strings attached to every dollar given out right now,” Forsyth says.

“It’s an opportunity to reimagine our economy.”

While the Australian JobKeeper initiative has been “fantastic in providing money directly to people”, Forsyth attributes an absence of messaging from local councils and governments to the decision by local cafes to reject reusable cups.

“When we started KeepCup, the legal advice we received was that the product did not contradict health and safety regulations, and were safe to use,” Forsyth says.

“Food safety regulations are specifically designed to prevent the transmission of communicable diseases like colds, flus and other diseases. It’s important to follow the science,” she adds.

“For us it’s a call to step up our advocacy to add our voice to the growing calls for a global ban on unnecessary and problematic disposable packaging, starting with single-use coffee cups. Once committed to reuse, you can’t go back.

“It’s a house of cards; we can’t separate the current crisis from the one on the horizon, or to lose sight of the world as we want it to be. Returning to single-use is trading one disaster for another.”

She says the messaging on how customers should use KeepCups safely has not changed in light of COVID-19 restrictions.

“Clean your cup, put it in the dishwasher and rinse it like you’d wash your hands, and you’re good to go,” Forsyth says.

“Don’t ever hand over a dirty cup to a café, and keep your lids.”

Moving out of the cup realm”

Forsyth and her team have been using this period as an opportunity to work on new projects, and fast track others that have been “slow to get off the ground”.

“We are launching a wholesale portal for customers to order online, and will be providing more training and advocacy to distributors,” she says.

“And there are a couple of other products, outside the cup realm, that we will be launching at the end of the year.

“They’re all about reducing single-use items.”

New products aside, Forsyth says the best thing for the “reuse movement” is for individuals and business owners to see others reusing.

“When we started 10 years ago, we worked in the café industry. I know how slim the margins are, and how high rent is,” she says.

“But, for us, KeepCup has always been driven by the actions of individual consumers and cafes making a stand.

“Cafes are all trying to do the right thing, and we are all working out the best way to move forward.”

For KeepCup users we recommend the following simple steps: 

  1. Wash your reusable items in the dishwasher or handwash with detergent
  2. Clean hands clean KeepCup. Wash your hands regularly with soap and water or use hand sanitiser if soap and water isn’t available
  3. As usual, only hand over a clean and dry KeepCup to your barista and keep hold of your lid
  4. If your café isn’t accepting reusables decant your coffee from a ceramic café cup into a KeepCup; and
  5. Support local cafes that accept reusables.

Statement from KeepCup

NOW READ: Coping with COVID-19: A checklist for hospitality businesses to adapt during unprecedented times

NOW READ: KeepCup’s co-founder on the “crazy” 400% increase in sales fuelled by ABC’s “War on Waste” program

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.


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