'Keep Cup' are an Australian company responding to the disaster of 400bn disposable non-recyclable coffee (and tea) cups being discarded around the world each year. The Keep Cup is re-usable, the right size for coffee vendors but is getting cradle to cradle wrong.
Pret a Manger in London Bridge held a trial at the end of last month, selling their specially branded Keep Cups for £6.50 a go. 'Dan' commented on the Keep Cup blog: 'At £6.50 - not worth it. And the staff at London Bridge certainly were not pushing them this morning.' I can certainly understand this reaction. You'd have to be some sort of crazy eco-geek to want to pay that sort of money to get your coffee, drink it, wash it up and then remember to take it back to Pret the next day to get it re-filled. Even if you habitually buy coffee from the same company, it is still some ask to pay for the privilege of a cup that you can probably only re-use at Pret outlets and have to wash up yourself. Not to mention having to pay a company for your services as a moveable advert for them.
So, what's the solution? First what are the problems?
1. Problem: A thirst for coffee / tea / hot choc while on the move. Solution: Takeaway 'fast food' hot drinks outlets. (Let's hold the discussion on manufactured supply and demand for a minute!)
2. Problem: Mountain of packaging waste. Solution: well......
For retailers number 2 is only a problem if it is hindering sales, damaging their product brand, or so horrendous that customers have to wade through discarded coffee cups to get to the counter. Right now, it doesn't appear to me that this is perceived as a problem by retailers or their customers. The waste mountain is too abstract and too 'normal'. We are so used to the linear model of production and consumption, that the inevitable wastes are not surprising or alarming, it is just a fact of life when understand the world in this way. Pretty much all of our food is packaged in materials that will eventually end up in landfill or an incinerator, that's just the way of the world right?!
The opposite to the linear 'cradle to grave' model of production is the cyclical 'cradle to cradle' model where waste = food. Cradle to Cradle is based on the continual cycling of technical and biological resources in two discrete closed loops (see my previous post for a diagram). Keep Cup is attempting to create a cycling of a technical resource (plastic cup) but I can't see it working. It is very hard for retailers to re-capture plastic take-away cups for re-fill on any grand scale, because our behaviour as consumers is too chaotic. Would Starbucks fill a Pret cup or vice-versa? If when I came across a Starbucks and fancied a coffee, had a clean Pret 'keep cup' in my bag, but could not see a Pret anywhere, I'd probably just go into Starbucks and get a coffee. I'd be pretty unlikely to fork out again for a Starbucks 'Keep Cup' so would probably quietly take a disposable one. If I was feeling particularly rebellious and wanted to protect my identity as an 'ethical consumer' I might even pour my Starbucks coffee into my Pret 'Keep Cup' and discretely dispose of the Starbucks cup!
Maybe Keep Cup could persuade the large coffee chains to club together on this and agree to re-fill any 'Keep Cup' regardless of the branding. Maybe they'd go for this, I'm not sure they would and they'd probably want to continually make small technical upgrades to their 'keep cups' to make their competitor's one's look outdated, un-fashionable, 'Have you seen Cafe Nero's new Keep Cup? It is way better than the 'Pret' one I used to have' etc, etc.
Now, I like being able to get a hot drink on the move, it is handy. But, being environmentally aware, I also have a guilty conscience every time I chuck an empty cup in the nearest bin. 'Keep Cup' are trying to cycle a technical resource, when the solution might be the cycling of a biological resource. Coffee Cups can quite easily be produced to bio-degrade a day or two after use into nice juicy compost which could then become food for a new coffee plant, or any other plant for that matter. This makes life a lot easier for the retailers and consumers.
Of course, infrastructure is needed for this, compost bins need to be as widespread as other bins in public spaces (a job for government?); the waste food needs to be turned into compost efficiently and taken back to growers (a job for the market?). Both of these things seem more possible to me than expecting consumers to re-use 'Keep Cups'. We have to remember that the cradle to cradle model is still in its embryonic stages, amazing things are possible and as conditions become more favourable, things like this will take off.