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A Circular Solution for Disposable Coffee Cups Lies in the U.K.

Sarah Hutcherson headshotWords by Sarah Hutcherson
Energy & Environment
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Even though the world's largest coffee chain, Starbucks, offers a ten-cent discount to consumers who use reusable cups for their caffeine fix, most of the company’s customers by far prefer that iconic paper cup. The same goes for other coffee chains and independent shops worldwide: it is estimated that 600 billion disposable coffee cups are used each year globally.

In the United Kingdom alone, 2.5 billion takeaway cups are used annually, with 99 percent of them thrown away instead of ending up at a recycling facility.

Meanwhile, as coffee shops across New York City now a surge in business thanks to the United Nations General Assembly and Climate Week, one can only imagine the number of paper cups that are ending up in the trash.

How CupClub tackles the disposable coffee cup problem

One company, CupClub—a United Kingdom-based returnable packaging service for hot and cold drinks – is reducing the number of takeaway cups used in the U.K. through its packaging systems and receptacles.

“Our mission is to eliminate single-use packaging to enable brands and retailers to empower their customers to experience takeaway without the throwaway,” said Safia Quereshi, Founder & CEO of CupClub, in a public statement. “We are building one of the world’s first returnable packaging systems that is optimized using IoT [internet of things] technology, enabling us to distribute, collect and wash packaging designed for multi-use.”

Each cup can be used 132 times. Once a cup has reached its end of life, it can be easily broken down to create new products. The business model revolves around the idea of paying per drink instead of owning a cup, which means a customer of CupClub is supporting the maintenance and infrastructure, as the company explains on its website

Convenience for the consumer was built into the design of CupClub. The company supplies reusable plastic cups to coffee shops to forgo customers forgetting their reusable cups at home or the office. Then, customers are only responsible for taking the cups to collection points within a few days of use—most of which are at coffee shops—where the CupClub team then takes them to a commercial washing center. Once cleaned, the cups are reintroduced at one of the collection points, according to Marcus Fairs of DeZen Magazine.

“For the consumer, it is a convenient option that allows the customer to choose a high quality returnable cup in preference to a disposal one,” as stated in a Circular London case study. “For the retailer or operator, it is a reliable, cost-comparative system for the supply of cups to their outlets.”

CupClub’s technology could allow for rapid scaling up

The differentiator from other circular-approach cup offerings—such as TrioCup or Revolv—is CupClub’s technology. Each cup is trackable as each cup is fitted with a RFID tag so CupClub can track each cup’s current and past usage.

“We can tell brands where their cups are,” Safia told DeZen Magazine, “so we can ensure they don’t become roadkill or get abandoned in the environment. It’s smart packaging.

CupClub went live in August 2018 with its first partner, a global real estate services firm. Since then, they have partnered with London-based coffee shops and have diverted over 100,000 coffee cups from landfills, according to Fast Company.

McDonald’s and Starbucks have also expressed interest in CupClub. CupClub was named one of the 12 winners of the NextGen Cup Challenge—a global innovation challenge to redesign the fiber to-go cup and was chosen to partake in the NextGen accelerator in August 2019, where the team worked through challenges such as customer needs and infrastructure challenges. 

Solid design should catalyze CupClub’s growth

Since CupClub’s design approaches the disposable coffee problem with a design-oriented, systems perspective, it is a solution that will continue to scale. Its design ensures reduced disposable cup costs and new marketing channels via the CupClub app for coffee shops—and for consumers—the absence of washing and flexibility in when they can drop off their CupClub cups.

“We have combined a product, service and business model that together enable multiple retailers and brands to transition to a returnable packaging system infrastructure at a city scale,” Safia told the New Plastics Economy team. “We have what it takes to be the city bike rental equivalent of the coffee scene.”

Image credit: CupClub

Sarah Hutcherson headshotSarah Hutcherson

As a recent Bard MBA Sustainability graduate, Sarah is excited to be a contributing writer to TriplePundit to demonstrate how environmentally and socially responsible business is synonymous with stronger returns and a more sustainable world. She is most intrigued with how to foster regenerative food systems, develop inclusive and democratic workplaces and inspire responsible consumption.

Read more stories by Sarah Hutcherson

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