Abigail Forsyth of KeepCup:

Starting a reusable movement

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I chat with Abigail Forsyth, the co-founder and managing director of KeepCup.

Abigail and her brother were running a number of cafes in the Melbourne area when they recognised the amount of disposable coffee cups going through their business and ending up in landfill.  Even worse, they couldn’t believe that there wasn’t already a reusable alternative on the market.

Ten years later, the KeepCup brand has become the generic term for a reusable coffee cup in many places.

We hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Abigail Forsyth of KeepCup.


Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2020

Topics from this episode:

  • 0.00 | Intro
  • 1.51 | How did KeepCup get started?
  • 4.24 | Abigail’s “why”
  • 5.10 | First steps
  • 7.25 | Funding the business and testing their minimum viable product
  • 9.19 | Made in Australia
  • 11.45 | What is quality?
  • 14.13 | Coffee culture acceptance
  • 15.30 | Impacts of Covid
  • 18.21 | From start-up to a global company
  • 20.27 | All English-speaking markets are different
  • 22.52 | Customisations
  • 23.10 | Dealing with cheaper competitors
  • 25.10 | What does it mean to be a “B Corps”
  • 28.22 | Star Wars KeepCups?
  • 30.03 | The challenges of making the KeepCup from recycled materials
  • 32.28 | Break-even lifecycle analysis of the KeepCup versus single-use
  • 33.31 | Future developments
  • 35.04 | A business with purpose
  • 36.54 | Where to buy a KeepCup?

Quotes from Abigail Forsyth in this episode:

‘And I still remember back in the early 2000s – a lawyer saying to me, “I feel like a baby drinking out of this sort of sippy cup.” And years later, we’re all drinking out of them and no one is thinking twice about it.’

“I did a bit of research, found out that they (single-use cups) were not recyclable and that they were actually a really thin plastic cup – a polyethylene cup, usually with a paper lining, and just became concerned about the number of them we went through as a business.”

“I looked around just initially just to find a reusable cup to, you know, to sell in our cafes and to encourage people to reuse. And when I went to the shops, I couldn’t find anything.”

“We saved money as a business every time they did (bring their reusable cup), because the disposable packaging cost us 70 cents and we were giving people 50 cents off. So financially, it was a win, win.”

“My grandfather always said lots of people talk about things that few people do them.”

“I thought, would I give her (Abigail’s daughter) the milk in a disposable cup? And that idea just seemed so wrong to be teaching a child that, you know, you just drink out of something and throw it in a bin.”

‘One of the manufacturers said to me, “You know, you’re just making a plastic cup. Like, what are you thinking?… So, what I would suggest to you is before you go into tooling, go and try and sell it.”

“I think I called about 150 companies and, you know, went to the catering manager, and then asked to speak to the sustainability manager who never had a budget. So, then I had to get to the marketing manager and, you know, really got to refine the pitch.”

“We sold 10,000 cups before we even had finished making the tool.”

“It seemed self-evident to me that in order to be a business that was about sustainability and reducing impact, we had to do everything at every stage of the journey to reduce impacts. So, making the product in Australia, we never looked anywhere else.”

“Part of the sustainability of the product is that it’s modular so that if you’ve got a drawer of KeepCups, you can put any lid on any product. Or if you break something, you can just replace the part.”

‘If you get the people behind the coffee machine endorsing it and going, “Cool KeepCup,” then you’re going to build audience quickly. Because one of the biggest impediments for people is … not wanting to put someone out by going in and saying, “Can you please fill this for me?”’

‘We know firsthand how tight margins are in cafes. And so, we’ve always walked a line where we’ve sort of encouraged people to reuse and not, you know, advocated a ban on single use. But I think coming out of this crisis, there needs to be much stronger action around climate. And I think that what we’re seeing is a lot of cafes now coming out and saying, “We’re actually not going to use disposable cups at all. We’re going to have to relook at our business model.”’

‘There’s a quote from Thomas Carlyle that I love, “that the merit of originality is not novelty, it’s sincerity.”

“If you scratch the surface of our business and our brand, we are true to everything we stand by from front to back. I think is part of what’s had us, you know, stand the test of time.”

“The authenticity of our voice around calling out single use has stood us in good stead… we were giving that message when it was unpopular to say. But holding true to our values has, you know, has meant that we’ve had longevity because of that.”

“We’ve been a B Corps since 2014 and those requirements keep ratcheting up as you are a B Corps for a longer period of time. But it has also given us great insight into what best practise looks like. So, from those assessments, you get great ideas about how you want to make your business better.”

“Ten years ago, to become sustainable or to identify as green was seen as quite a huge undertaking. And I think what KeepCup did at the point in time that we entered the market was to become a really easy entry point to that conversation that you didn’t need to fully identify as green… but there’s been this growing awakening that the problem is so big and so catastrophic that any effort that we make is going to make a difference.”

Links & Resources

Books mentioned:

A walk in nature

There’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of nature. So, over the holidays I decided to take a little walk in nature in New Zealand – one of the most beautiful places in the world. Still, I wondered before I got there if it would have the same issues with plastic waste as other places I have been recently.

This trip sent me to Wellington and then Picton where a boat took us to the start of the Queen Charlotte Track in the famous Marlborough wine region. For five glorious days, we hiked the sometimes difficult pathway to see breathtaking views of the area.

Views from the Queen Charlotte Track
Views from the Queen Charlotte Track

I even had a chance to go out for a paddle where we saw Eagle rays and a seal sunning himself on the back of a small yacht.

Wildlife sightings along the Queen Charlotte Track.
Wildlife sightings

What I didn’t see was a lot of rubbish which was really surprising, especially in the harbours. Instead, I saw just two pieces: a floating plastic bag that we couldn’t reach and a famous bottle where a tree decided to grow around it.

Rubbish sightings on the Queen Charlotte Track
Rubbish sightings on the Queen Charlotte Track

This was incredible given the number of backpackers and boat traffic we saw there. It could only mean that everyone was doing their part to keep the environment clean.

And it was likely the little things that made a difference. All of our packed lunches were in paper bags (and so were offered shopping bags). I was given a recyclable container for my salad which was of a much stronger material than what you normally see in Australia. Bamboo utensils and paper straws were the norm everywhere. We were encouraged to refill our drink bottles from the taps.

I especially liked the reusable coffee cup the tour operator gave us for our daily morning teas. No council in New Zealand recycles coffee cups. So this was a really nice and practical souvenir.

Reusable souvenir coffee cup

While I haven’t had a chance to research their recycling situation in New Zealand, overall I have to say that I was really impressed by how clean this part of the country was during my walk in nature. And they seem to have done this by focussing more on the reduction of plastic waste – a lesson all communities can easily adopt.

Recycling in Hawaii

This week, I’m in Honolulu for a small family reunion. While I’m technically on vacation, I can’t help notice the challenges of recycling in Hawaii, specifically on this island of Oahu.

All of the pictures that they show on tourists web pages or social media accounts can be deceiving as I can’t help notice both the rubbish and the lack of plastic reduction measures on the island. This in itself feels so wrong when native Hawaiians are especially conscious about the land like most indigenous cultures.

There does seem to be multiple groups trying to help the waste issue here, particularly ocean waste. In fact, I was invited to a clean-up on the North Shore on Sunday (which I’ll unfortunately miss) where rubbish collects on the beaches from the Great Pacific Trash Patch.

While this is not necessarily trash that originates from Hawaii, there is an issue locally too. For one, very few big hotels in Waikiki provide even the most simple options such as plastic straws or cutlery alternatives. And just about every glass of water also comes with a straw without thought.

Today, I was actually given disposable chopsticks wrapped in plastic and labelled, “Eco.” Normally, these things are in a paper wrapper. So, even the usually better alternative to plastic utensils wasn’t available.

Fake advertising of an eco product
Eco chopsticks? What happened to the paper cover?

Where does rubbish go on an island?

So what happens when so much rubbish is generated on an island paradise? Too much of it ends up in the storm water drains and eventually goes into the ocean, just like the picture below at the Yacht Club.

Wakiki Yacht Club at night and in reality
Wakiki Yacht Club at night and in reality

Recycling in Hawaii is failing

Unfortunately, it looks like things are getting worse for recycling in Hawaii just like the places I visited in mainland USA in August. Since China and other countries put their recycled material import ban in place last year, the price of mixed plastics in particular have dropped dramatically.

While Oahu is still accepting #1 and #2 plastics, as of October 2019, Hawaii County which covers the big island is no longer accept any plastics or paper. This is exactly what happened to my parent’s hometown in September.

I’m not convinced that Hawaii was doing much recycling before everything happened with exports. Certainly the idea of “reducing” single-use plastics is not front of mind at the moment – for most of the people or businesses here. So, the question becomes, what happens to the rest of the rubbish now if recycling in Hawaii is no longer an option? It’s not like they have a lot of space for more landfills here.