One of the most famous songs from the old musical 70, Girls, 70 is a song called “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup,” where one character decries the use of to-go cups: “The trouble with the world today/It’s plain to see/Is coffee in a cardboard cup.” The musical was written in back the ’50s, long before Starbucks, but its creators were unknowingly on to something.
Fast-forward to 2018, we’re throwing out over 40 billion single-use cups across the U.S. and Europe each year. Many have tried to address the waste issue; no one’s succeeded on a large scale. Offering to knock 10 cents off the cost of my $5.00 coffee isn’t much of an incentive to lug a bulky, reusable cup around (if I haven’t already lost said cup in a taxi cab).
Safia Qureshi considered all this when she created Cup Club, a subscription service using the Internet of Things and RFID to reinvent the reusable cup.
It works like this: Participating coffee retailers stock the cups, made of plant-based plastic, and give them to a Cup Club member buying a coffee. The latter can then “return” the cup to any number of locations around the city. Once returned, the cups are collected, washed, and redistributed to the participating stores. And since each cup is RFID tagged and registered to a user’s account, Cup Club can charge a user for unreturned cups.
Cup Club will reportedly be available to the public this month in London, and will be followed by a worldwide rollout in the future.
Qureshi took inspiration for the company from the chai wallahs in India, who sell chai in glass cups that are returned, washed, and reused. “I’m very passionate about putting an end to products that are only used one time,” she recently said. “It’s a selfish and arrogant stance.”
For Cup Club to work on a large scale, Qureshi will need not just the support of the coffee shops who participate, but also a strong enough interest from the general population. I speculate here, but I could see Cup Club or its technology eventually getting acquired by a heavyweight coffeeshop chain, one with the kind of reach and brand power Cup Club needs to influence consumer behavior.
The fact that she’s not the only one to consider this type of approach is encouraging. In Germany, the city of Frieberg has introduced The Freiberg Cup: users put a 1 euro deposit down on a cup and can return it to one of the 100 participating businesses across the city. The system is reportedly cheaper for both consumers and businesses, and early results are “encouraging.” It’s not unfathomable for similar systems to start popping up all over the country as more people ditch the cardboard cup.
Because that’s what the success of the reusable cup really comes down to: changing our behavior. It’s automatic at this point to walk into a coffeeshop, order, and walk out clutching a paper cup. That companies like Cup Club offer an environmentally conscious option without the inconvenience of having to keep track of a reusable cup means the concept could have a real shot at success. If it doesn’t, “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup” is just going to get more and more relevant as time goes on.