Hayley Clarke

Hayley Clarke of Onya:

Creating alternatives to single-use plastic

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I’m chatting with Hayley Clarke of Onya based in Perth, Australia.  Onya makes reusable alternatives for single-use plastic products for consumers.

Hayley and her partner were looking for a business that aligned with their personal values when they bought Onya from its original owners in 2015. Since then, they’ve grown the company both domestically and internationally while also achieving the difficult B Corporation certification that proves their commitment to the environment and others.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Hayley Clarke of Onya.

You can read the full transcript of this episode on Tammy’s blog.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Plastic Free July


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

You can read the full transcript of this episode on Tammy’s blog.

Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.


T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
H: Hayley Clarke, Managing Director of Onya


T:  Haley, welcome to the show.

H: Thank you so much for having me.

T: Now, before we get started, I need to ask you to clarify the word, “Onya.” Now, I know that’s an Aussie slang word that a lot of our listeners may not be familiar with. So, can you tell us what does on your mean?

H:  Absolutely. It stems from the idea that when our business started back in 2004, the idea was that you’d keep the products “onya,” because one of the things we certainly realised in the early days was that people would forget to bring their shopping bags to the supermarket.

H: And so, the idea is the majority of (our products) is to be stuffed down into a little pouch that can be kept “onya.” So it’s a really Australian kind of term, I guess. But also a practical one, because it was basically to help people remember to take their bags shopping. And that’s where we started with reusable shopping bags.

T:  Oh, how funny. I actually have heard it used in a different context before, which is usually when they say, “Oh, good onya.”

H:  Of course. Yes, it’s about keeping it “onya.” The dual purpose, I guess, as you say, is that, yes, it’s “good onya” as well if you remember them.

Say goodbye to single-use produce bags

T: Oh, great. Thanks for that. Now, I was first introduced to your products maybe about two years ago when I bought your produce bag.

H: Fantastic.

T: It’s something I take with me to the shops all the time. And for those that aren’t familiar with it, it’s basically a reusable fruit or veggie bag so that you don’t have to use a single-use bag anymore. And it doesn’t hardly weigh anything. So, when you put it on the scale, you’re not paying for extra weight. I love those bags and I have them everywhere.

T: Could you just tell us a little bit more about Onya, some of the other products that you guys have?

H:  Certainly. I guess it’s easy to understand what our goal was first. It’s why we came into being was because we saw all of these instances of single-use plastic in society. And so, the goal has always really been to try and create reusable items for single-use plastic and to replace it in people’s lives. So, as you say, the produce bags that you’ve been using are certainly one of our biggest sellers these days. They never used to be that. Certainly. It’s really been great to see that come on board probably in the last five years or so.

H:  We’ve seen that really blossom. And now that’s become one of our biggest sellers (the produce bags) because it’s such an easy swap. If people are aware of the issue of plastic pollution and want to reduce single-use plastic in their lives, swapping out single-use produced bags, whether or not they’re biodegradable, they’re still single-use primarily. And so, swapping them out for a reusable, long lasting reusable item is a smart move.

H: And it’s an easy way. It’s a really low hanging fruit when you’re wanting to try and reduce single-use plastic in your life. So, we always say start with one thing and then move on to other areas. And that’s why I guess over the years we’ve come a long way from just shopping bags.

Other products to reduce waste

H: We have produce bags, as you’re aware of, but now we do reusable bread bags and lunch wraps and bulk food bags and all sorts of different things where you can replace single-use items and that could be single-use paper or it could be single-use plastic. The point is to try and reduce waste.

H: And of course, our products, wherever we can, are made out of recycled materials themselves. So, we’re preventing waste going to landfill and certainly into our waterways. And we’re taking and repurposing that material, which has a much lower carbon emission and creating a long-lasting reusable product for it.

H: Then we partner with TerraCycle at the end for some of our products that are not easily recycled through the council bins sort of scheme. And then we make sure that at no point do our products need to go to landfill. So, they get repurposed and reused as many times as they can over and over in a more circular economy principle.

Changing one single-use habit at a time

T:  Well, I think one of the easiest things to change was the produce bag.  That’s because here in Australia, so many councils and states have actually banned the use of a single-use shopping bags in grocery stores, at least the light ones. And so if we’re going to bring a bag to the grocery store anyway to carry your normal groceries, then adding a produce bag was pretty simple to change your habits around that a well.

H:  Yes, absolutely. And because they do stuff down into a little pouch, you can just clip them on your bag or what have you. And so, they are always on you. And that’s the point. There’s nothing worse than forgetting them going, Oh, I’ve forgotten my bags.” It’s about changing your habits.

H: And that’s one of the joys of things like Plastic Free July. It’s about trying to go for that month of July as often as you can without single-use plastic. And the idea being that you create a new habit and form a new habit in a month, and so then it becomes easier and you can build on it.

Hayley’s passion for reducing waste

T:  Hayley, when did you become so passionate about plastic and reducing waste in this space?

H:  I grew up in the country, and my mom used to make a lot of our stuff. She’d back her own bread, and do our own butter and all of that kind of stuff. So, I sort of grew up in a bit of an idyllic childhood, I guess, in the country. A lot of that country living is about living waste free. Everything has a purpose and a use. So, I guess that was instilled into me from quite a young age.

Purchasing Onya in 2015

H:  I didn’t start Onya. It was something that my partner and I purchased back in 2015. But it’s been going since 2004. And I think I bought my first set of produce bags, which was my first purchase, probably maybe 2008.  When the opportunity came up, that Onya was available on the market, we were in the position and looking for something. I was like, “I think they’re the produce bags that I have.” And so, it just seemed to be a match made in heaven.

H:  We ended up then purchasing Onya and the rest goes from there. So, I would say that I was always aware of waste and trying to live lightly on the earth. I think that was probably ingrained into me from quite a young age and waste wasn’t a thing that we could afford, I guess. So, I think that was quite an easy thing for me.

H: But the biggest learning curve has definitely been learning about the issue of plastic pollution. That has definitely been a journey of discovery and about realising how massive the task was and is to clean up this issue. We felt that we could contribute to that by taking this business and putting it out to the public.

H:  The more people that are aware of the issue of plastic pollution and have solutions for it, then the easier it becomes. Yes, it’s absolutely down to producers to be more responsible. But as individuals, we can actually take that power into our hands.  I think with things like climate change, we feel powerless. Whereas I think with the issue of plastic pollution, we feel powerful because we can actually see the changes we’ve made in our own households. So, I think that’s really seductive.

T:  Oh, for sure. And the reality is that by reducing plastic use, it actually helps with climate change, too, as one of the biggest emissions drivers is the creation of plastic, including textiles.

H: Yes, of course.

A little more about Hayley

T:  What were you doing before you decided to purchase the company in 2015?

H:  We had also owned a business prior, and it was part of a national retail chain. And it was involved primarily, I felt, in sending stuff to landfill. Because that is what is primarily what retail often is about – sales and sales and sales and nothing’s made to last.

H: I guess it was just destroying my soul, and it’s not something that I was ever very easy with, and when you see the waste that’s involved in all aspects of that in most general retail. Yeah, it’s quite horrifying. So, we decided, “Look, we want out of this, and we want to do something else.” So, we looked and looked and looked and came across the opportunity to purchase Onya, which was just seemed like perfect timing.

T:  Well, certainly finding a business that was in line with your values, I’m sure was not an easy journey.

H: No, no, not at all.

T:  But it also seemed like your skills were right aligned with the retail side. With that background, it would be so useful.

H: Absolutely. I can’t begrudge that background because that enabled us to see the opportunity for Onya and say, This is where the prior owners had taken it to the best of their ability, but these are the skill sets that we have and can bring into it.” We immediately saw that turnaround.

Criteria for buying a business

T:  When you’re thinking about buying a business, there are so many different factors to look at. Of course, the financials are just one aspect of it. For some of the people that are interested in starting businesses or are interested in buying businesses that are listening to the show – I think they’d be quite curious to know what were some of the criteria that you looked at besides the fact that you’ve obviously found something that fit your value scheme. What were some of the other things that you looked at when you purchased the business to know that you can actually turn it around?

H: Yes, certainly. I think you’ve got to align also your skill sets. “What do you come in with? What are your superpowers? It doesn’t even have to be a business background necessarily. It could be some other background, but you can overlay those skills in a new way. So, I think that you’ve got to at least have some skill sets that you think immediately, “We can apply these and make this business better.”

H: So, I think that’s definitely the case. I think you’ve got to have at least some sort of skill set that relates to the business that you’re looking at. I think if you’re going in really fresh and of course, you can buy a business you’ve never had anything to do with before, but it’s definitely a harder task. I think definitely coming in and looking for those things and saying, “Okay, this is a skill set that I have. How could I apply this in this business to improve it?”

H:  That’s definitely what we did coming into there. We knew, by and large, with Onya -yes, we had never really been involved in the manufacturing side of things before, but I knew that we could learn that. It was also about,” How do we market it, and how do we take this brand out and spread the word so more and more people are using reusable rather than single-use?” And I knew that that’s a message that we had the skill set to tell.

T: It’s the truth, isn’t it? So many people can make something, but very few know how to sell it.

H: Yes. And I think that’s the case with the prior owners as well. They’d done such a good job, but I think they just got to that point where they’re like, “That’s where we’re at the limit of our knowledge now, and we really need to move it along. Or if we leave it, it’s just going to die.”

H: They loved it, and quite rightly, they did.  So, when we came along, we said this would be our vision. This is what we could see happening with it. And they just felt, “Yes, that’s what we would love for it to go.”  So I think that just worked out really, really well, that we came across this business that not only aligned with our values, but also played really strongly to our skillset that we can improve it really quickly and turn it around.

Manufacturing overseas

T:  Were the manufacturing relationships then that you’re currently using already in place, or have you changed some of those manufacturers since then?

H: We’ve definitely changed some of them, but we have ones that have been with us for 10 or 12 years. They’re primarily our bag manufacturing arm. I go and visit them, and they’re the same group of women that have been making our stuff at 10 or 12 years and they’re often single moms and they find it hard to find work and they’re paid over and above standard wages and have really good conditions.

H: I’m really proud to be able to support them and use them. And unfortunately, in Australia, we just don’t have a manufacturing segment of the market, not like we used to, not like 80 years ago.  It’s just not done here anymore, and I don’t think that’s Australia’s strength either because of our very high wages.

H: So, I think other countries definitely have strengths in that area, and you can ethically and responsibly and sustainably produce internationally. And we sell internationally, so I guess that’s only fair. We do what we can within Australia. And of course, we employ people here, but we just don’t employ for manufacture here.

T:  Certainly, I’ve looked at manufacturing for a number of different things. What are you using? Is it right that you’re using recycled polyester?

H: Yes, that’s correct. Yes, rPET.

T: Yes. So that’s basically a water bottle?

H: That’s correct.

T: I’ve looked, and I know that there are no manufacturers in Australia that actually create that particular product as a material that you can use for other things. I know it’s the same problem with ocean waste as people have been trying to use nylon from fishing nets. And there are no manufacturers here in Australia where you can buy that material from. So, I can feel your pain in terms of saying, “Look, I would love to do something local, but it’s not available. And it’s also ridiculously expensive with the current cost of labour to do it any other way.

Process for looking for new manufacturers

T: There is a lot of controversy, though, about using labour overseas. Now, you did inherit some great manufacturers already, but as you continue to grow your product line, how do you look for new manufacturers that might make different kinds of products?  How do you find your sources of manufacturers that you feel like are doing the right thing when you’re going to another country?

H:  You really have to have a list, a very strong list of things that you’re not going to compromise on. And they are things like they must pass international levels of social and environmental audits. You have to walk the floors of these factories. You have to speak with the workers. You really do need to do that stuff and really dig down. It takes us a long time to decide on a manufacturing partner because we need to be absolutely sure that everything is above board. So, yeah, it’s not a quick and easy process.

H: We’ve been around such a long time, and now you’ll see a lot of competitors come onto the market, and they may be producing a product that is cheaper or it may not be made out of recycled material. Quite often it’s not, and don’t know what’s gone into that. They could be using slave labour. You just don’t know.

H:  What we’ve tried to do with Onya is to give people peace of mind that we have done all the legwork for you. We actually go and walk the floors of these factories. We speak to the workers. We get them independently audited. We do all of this work, which is not cheap to do so. We do all of that work because that’s really important to us and for the future of the planet.

H: I think it’s actually because of businesses like Onya, that you’ve got places like China, Vietnam and even India slowly coming along. They absolutely have improved their manufacturing process overall as we’ve seen in the last five years because they’re aware that for the rest of the world, this is really important, for them to be taking care of.

H: And to be fair to China, to my knowledge, they’ve never used child labour. That’s never been a thing in their society. So that was one of the things that we never had to concern ourselves with because it’s not really done there. In India, yeah, you get it. You get a lot of that. But yet, China, that’s not a thing. Certainly, bad treatment of workers can happen. That’s why we’re very, very pedantic about who we work with.

Certified B Corporation process

T:  You also take it to the next step of getting a B Corporation certification.

H: Yes.

T: Now, there’s probably not that many Australians that are actually familiar with that term. I’m originally from the US, and I know that’s very much a goal for a lot of companies with purpose, and you kind of need it now to be considered somewhat of a social enterprise or someone that’s doing something ethically. But not many people in Australia value that yet. Could you tell us what that really is, and what the process was for you to attain that certification?

H:  Yeah, sure. It was really, really important for us. We did it quite early on. And as you say, there were hardly any B Corps in Australia at the time when we got our certification. Actually, Australia is now one of the fastest growing areas for B Corps in the world, which has been really, really wonderful to hear. We can see that our B local groups are growing and growing. I sit on the board here for the local one here in Perth. And so it’s just really been great to see that grow and that awareness of B Corps and why that’s important.

H: But you’re right. You go to the US and everyone’s like, “Oh, you’re a Big Corps? Great!” I was in the US last year on a travelling tour with Rebecca Prince, who is from Plastic Free July, and yeah, it’s just not a hard sell there. They all know what that is. So, one day we’ll make it in Australia.

H:  The process is very rigorous, which I love. I hated it at the time, but I love it because it shouldn’t be easy. The point of it is that you are doing all of this work to show and prove to people that that you genuinely are caring. You’re not paying lip service to it. And so it took us around seven months to get our B Corp certification. There was a lot of back and forth and really nutting things out.

H: What that does as well, as a business, is it really does help you clarify what your sustainability and ethical goals are. You may have thought that you had sorted, but until you really drill down into them, that process really does open up things and possibilities I found for businesses.  Like, “Oh, we could do this, and we could do that.” So, it really does lead you down all sorts of great paths, I think, to help improve your business for the better – socially, environmentally and sustainably.

T: But, it still isn’t an easy process.

H: It’s definitely a bit of a marathon. I found the best way for us to do it was to break it up into stages and say, “Okay, I have a goal of completing this stage by this time and trying to do that. Because if you look at it as an overall, it can be quite overwhelming. So I think that if you just do it piecemeal, and you’ll get through it.

H:  I absolutely wanted to do because it was really important to me to do it. I knew that it was going to be important for the planet. So, it’s something that really drove me to do it, particularly when, as I say at the time, there were hardly any B Corps in Australia. No one even knew what it was. But my thinking was that people are going to care about this stuff in the future. Absolutely.

H:  So, I think it’s really important for us, even if we are in the very early stages of the awareness of it here. I think it’s really important for us to do and set ourselves up as a business that is doing the right thing by the planet. And regardless of any competitors that come into the market, for our clients and our customers to know that we’re doing the right thing by them. And so that was really, really important to us, even if no one knew what it was yet.

Compostable bags?

T:  Well, it will be a market differentiator soon if it isn’t already, and especially if you’re already overseas, because there’s so much greenwashing out there.

H:  So much.

T: I was looking at a product, a competitor product for something I was working on. And they showed me something that said “bioplastic.”  I’m always skeptical when I read bioplastic to see what that really is. Of course, a lot of people are saying, “Oh, it has these international standards and blah, blah, blah.”  

T: But if it’s not plant based – if it’s still petroleum based, it’s still plastic. And it breakdown in ten years instead of 100 years or fifty years instead of 500 years? I think it really does make a difference for you guys to go through this full process and to show that you truly are doing the right thing and not just making this stuff up.

H:  Yeah, and we try and do a lot of education around that whether through demand and from our customers. As you may have seen, we have actually released our dog waste bags and our bin liners. Now, that was not easy for us to do because primarily we have always been involved in reusable products.  

H:  So what we’ve tried to do with the release of things like bin liners as an example is, if you go to our website, you go to that page, you’re going to see a whole bunch of information from us trying to help you reduce your waste first. And if you absolutely feel that you need a bin liner, then these are one of the most responsible ones on the market.

“It’s about saying if there isn’t an option, can you create something that is a sustainable and good option? And sometimes there is no answer. Sometimes people just have to do without and that’s that. But people really wanted an option rather than just plastic bin liners.”

T: Is that a home compostable bag? Is that what you’ve chosen to use?

H: They’re certified to industrial composting facilities. But as you all know, this is a hot compost. You’re looking at 50 plus degrees Celsius. So, providing you have that at home, you could absolutely compost at home.

H: What happens with home composting is that it breaks down at a lower grade temperature. And actually, the bin liners are in the process now of getting their certification for home compost. What you’ve got to be really careful of is that the bin liners are being used in the timeframe because they start to break down. This is the problem with them. It’s not like a plastic bin liner you can have sitting in your cupboard for a year. They won’t last.

H: They will just break down naturally. It almost becomes like leaves. They just break down, and eventually they break down to their natural cellulose beginnings. So, there’s nothing left. They’re completely worm safe. There is nothing detectable in the soil. They will break down, and so they’re different.

H:  It’s about the education thing. It’s like, “Well, if you absolutely need bin liners, then fine, use these.” And yes, they can break down at home. But for most people, what they’re putting in the bin that’s going to need a liner is actually all of the stuff, unfortunately, that’s going to landfill.

H: So, do these break down in landfill? Yes, of course they do, but it takes a much longer period of time for them to break down than if they are in a natural composting facility. So, it’s a really, really tricky situation. Our goal, as we’ve always said, is to educate people to reduce their waste overall so they don’t really require them. And that our ultimate goal. But we are aware that people are still using bin liners and the requests are overwhelming for them.

Other products to help us reduce single-use plastic

T: So, what other products do you have that will help us?

H: It does depend on where you live and what facilities are available nearby to you. Obviously, if you’re more in an urban area, it’s far easier to find things like bulk food stores, certainly fresh fruit and veg groceries, and bakers – independent bakers and things like that.

H: So, we created a range of products where even things like our lunch wraps, which I find incredibly useful for so many things. I use them not just for wrapping a sandwich, which the name would indicate that’s all they’re there for. I actually use them to wrap things like the end of something I’ve cut off, whether it’s a tomato or a cucumber or what have you, and I’ll wrap that in their reusable lunch wrap instead rather than using things like cling film. So that’s a really simple way of reducing that kind of single-use plastic.

H: Even now, the major supermarkets are starting to do some sort of bulk foods. And so if you find that you’re having to buy some dry goods, then and you don’t have a bulk food store that’s within an easy distance from you, then definitely look at what the supermarkets have to offer because they are offering new things all of the time.

Single-use plastic alternatives creating business loyalty for wholesalers

H: It’s just important to find the level where you’re at and do what you can in your region and your area. So, going to an independent baker and supporting them and taking in your bread bag. They’ve become a real talking piece. People are like, “Wow, I haven’t seen this before.”

H: We have bakers that have come on board to sell our bread bags and our lunch wraps because people have bought them in and said, “Hey, I’m reducing single-use plastics.” They’ve seen this change in their customers. And so, then it’s great for that business to also offer a value add for them.

H: We even have businesses and bakeries that would say, “Hey, when you buy a reusable bread bag, you get your first loaf for free, and things like. Because the business itself can make up that margin by the sale of that product.

H: And then they also get a new crop of people to come and buy at a baker instead of just buying their pre-packaged loaves at a supermarket. It’s almost like a loyalty thing. Once they’ve sold one of their customers a reusable bread bag, the chances are they’re going to come back to you and buy. So, from a business perspective, it’s a smart move for them as well.

Customer demographics

T: What percentage of your business right now is going to retailers versus going directly to consumer?

H:  Well, because we’ve worked so long to work up our wholesale base, I would say that maybe for 65% to 70% percent of our business is through our wholesale customers. And then the rest is direct to public through our website.

T: And then what percentage now is being sold in Australia versus other countries?

H: Australia is still currently our biggest market, but around six months ago, we had the opportunity to expand into the U.K. So we’re now shipping direct from there, which is really lovely. I’m just grateful from a lower carbon emission perspective to be able to ship locally to people.

H: Our goal is, with any luck, we’ll also push into the US market because we have stockers already in these areas. We just really need to be able to move into those markets in a more meaningful way and shipping direct from their region. And so that’s been the goal there. We’ve been able to do that with the UK and Europe. And then the next one is the US. So that that will certainly overtake Australia, I would imagine. So Australia will become the smallest part of our market. But because that’s this is where we started, our largest proportion of sales come out of the Australian market share.

Future plans for Onya

T:  There’s some great goals in front of you. Do you have any other future plans that you want to share?

H:  Oh, look, I always got plans. I think it’s a matter of when you make a plan, you’ve got to then say, “OK. It’s an interesting idea.” And then you work backwards to say, “How can this work?”  So, we have plans. I think it’s a matter of working out what is the sustainable thing to do? What makes the most sense and what is most required, I guess, in the market?

‘I love to come up with products, in particular, where there might not be a really good alternative for a reusable to replace a single-use item. So, I really do love to look at that sort of thing and do that. And also, our customers, bless their cotton socks, they come to us and say, “We really want to see this or that.” And when you hear the same thing over and over and over again, you think, “Ah, there’s probably something in that. There seems to be a lack of alternatives for that in the marketplace.’

H: So, we definitely take all of that feedback on board, and we weigh them up. And we really do our research and say, “Is this the right thing to do?” We definitely have a couple of different new products that we’re working on and hope to release maybe later this year. I don’t want to say exactly what they are yet, but we’ve definitely got a few things in the works.

H: Apart from that, from a business perspective for us, we’ve just had this incredible opportunity to expand internationally. And so for us, it makes sense because for what we produce, it’s not restricted to one particular country or region. It is required the world over for people to really think reusable, which is our tagline.

“It’s about moving away from our throwaway society and actually going back to what we used to do 50 or 60 years ago and value the things that we have.”

Valuing quality products again

H: Sorry, I’m sort of going up on a little soapbox here, but, I think we’ve gone in a society where we’ve become a throwaway society, but not just that we’ve learned to devalue the things that we’re purchasing.

And I really love to see people thinking more about their purchases and buying less, but buying quality so it really is lasting. And the more and more companies that are aware of things like a circular economy, it means that then there’s also an end of life solution for those products. So, at no point do they need to go to landfill. That’s been really important for us as well to provide a really good end of life solution for our products.

H:  So, things like our drink bottles are highly recyclable. You can just put them in your kerbside recycling bin, and that’s fine, and the same as our lids. But some of our other things like rPET at the moment is still not easily recycled in kerbside recycling. And so that’s what we’re saying, we partner with TerraCycle to really repurpose those products and they get made into things like other bags if they can and they can use that that way. But other things like horse holsters, dog leads, all of that sort of stuff and get turned into different products.

T: I’m just looking at your Onya bread bags right now, and they look like a fantastically, well-designed product. In fact, I love the fact that there is a handle on it because most of the time is just a bit awkward. When you see these other cheaper brands that you could put your bread into, it still is difficult to carry. And your bag of handle just looks like it’s such a high-quality product. So obviously it’s something that can be used, and you can wash it as you need to as well.

H: Thank you. Yes, and the clip is super heavy duty. So, we’re actually working on if over time your clip breaks, and we can just send you a new clip. You can just sew on a new clip, and that old clip can just go into your recycling bin. The bags can be used for many, many years.

H: And I mean, you’ve had your produce bags for two years. But I know (I had) my bags since 2008. So how many years ago? Now that’s 12 years. They’re sort of still going, and they’re like the day I bought them.  Many people would say they’ve had Onya products for over 10 years, and they’re still going strong.

T: Which is a testament to your desire to create quality product. So someone buys your product, they can return it to you at the end of life, and that TerraCycle will recycle it into something else?

H: Correct.  They can return it back to us. We also give the client a 30% discount in case they need to replace that item, as well. So they can return their product through us through the Onya Recycling Program. All of that information is on our website. So, if they have an old Onya product that they’re going, “Oh, look, I really want to replace that.” If they get in touch with us and go through the Onya Recycling Program, we’ll actually give them a lovely discount, as well if they do need to replace it. And then knowing that they’ve returned their product to us and we’re taking care of that responsibly.

Advice for Listeners

T:  OK. So, any last words or advice for our listeners?

H: Look, if you are contemplating in your personal life, your business life, in your office buildings or wherever you work from, I’d encourage you to certainly look at ways that you can reduce waste of any kind. Obviously, we’re involved in things like plastic pollution. But if you can look at ways that even in your businesses or your personal life that’s got an area of waste that you can look at reducing, then start with that and then build on to bigger and bigger things.

And I think it’s by all of us participating actively in reducing our waste that we have this massive global impact and it’s happening. We see it all of the time, and that waste is being reduced. It’s never as quick as we would like. But I’d encourage everyone that’s listening, be it personal or for business, if you can find ways that you can reduce waste in your daily lives. Start with one thing. Build on it and before you know it, your streets ahead of where you were. So, yeah, get out there and do it.

Onya contact details

T:  Yes. Great advice. So, this last question is if any of our listeners want to buy your products or get in touch with you. What’s the best way to do that?

H: Certainly. You can hit up our website. It’s just www.onyalife.com as our main website. If you’re coming from different regions generally, it’ll say, “Hey, if you’re coming from the UK or Europe, do you want to go off to that website.” You can do that from that home website. And so, you can shop more locally if you’re in UK or in Europe, but the rest of the world will be just through www.onyalife.com and you can do that.

H: And I’d highly encourage you to – obviously shop on our site, happy to do it – but if you want to shop locally, have a look and go into the stockiest list, type in your postcode and see if there’s a local stockist near you. We love to support our wholesalers and small businesses. So, if you can find a way of shopping locally, then please just head to our stocklist as well.

H: We always recommend if you are going to do that, just make sure you call ahead if you’re after a specific product to make sure they have what you want before you turn up. But apart from that, obviously we’re happy to work with you through our website as well.

H:  And we also do things like fundraising, for not for profits and school groups and things like that. So, you can check out those sort of things, as well, if you need to raise funds in a sustainable way. We certainly have that option, and we also have the option to do custom orders as well. So obviously there’s minimal quantities that you have to purchase, but they can be great as well. So, if you’re wanting to customise something for an event, then we have the options to do that with some of our lines as well.

T: OK, I’ll make sure to put some links in our show notes and the transcripts so people can easily find them.

Final thoughts

T: Thank you so much, Hayley, for your time today, and also just for your passion. It’s so clear in the way that you talk about plastic waste, and how we can reduce it in ways that your company are trying to provide some easy solutions for consumers to reduce their single-use plastic specifically, and to be able to find alternatives for the plastic that they must continue to use because of their challenge with the alternatives at this moment.

T: It’s clear that you’re in the right business now in the retail space, and one that’s certainly in line with your values. And I so look forward to seeing some of the products that you might be able to reveal in the next year or so that may also continue to support the work that you’re doing, both from a business perspective, but even more so from helping the environment. So, thank you so much for your time today.

H: Thank you so much for listening. I really appreciate it.

T: Cheers.

Green Caffeen: Two dads and a green coffee cup

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I chat with Damien Clarke and Martin Brooks, the founders of Green Caffeen. Both of them were stay at home dads struggling with mental health issues until they decided to start a business that essentially rents reusable takeaway cups.

In 15 short months they have taken their idea across Australia with interest from overseas as well. And in this episode the guys also make a big announcement which explains why they’re in Canberra, the nation’s capital that day. I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Damien Clarke and Martin Brooks of Green Caffeen.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Green Caffeen website
Planet Ark
Take 3 for the Sea


Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2019


This transcript has been edited for clarity.


T: Host Tammy Ven Dange
D: Guest Damien Clarke, Co-Founder of Green Caffeen
M: Guest Martin Brooks, Co-Founder of Green Caffeen

The Green Caffeen Coffee Cup
The Green Caffeen Coffee Cup

Introduction to Green Caffeen

T: Damien and Martin, welcome to Canberra.

D: Thanks for having us.

M: Thank you.

T: I have such an interest in your coffee cup – which is the Green Caffeen green coffee cup. It’s something that has been in the news quite a bit here in Canberra lately, just because of significant initiatives to try to reach some targets by our local government around recycling and less waste going into the landfills. Can you tell us about your program here?

D: Yeah excellent. Thank you for having us firstly. It’s really exciting down here in the ACT. It seems to be very progressive around heading towards zero waste particularly around takeaway packaging and takeaway coffee cups are one of the big elements that they’re trying to work on at the moment.

D: I think within the ACT – if you look across the problem across Australia, we have significant impacts being had by people just having single-use takeaway coffee cups. So, we congratulate the ACT government (for) actually sort of being one of the first people to progress towards a zero-waste policy with single use cups.

How Does the Green Caffeen Program Work?

T: Now for those people that aren’t familiar with the Green Caffeen system, let’s walk through it. If I was someone who is a heavy coffee drinker, which I am – how would I use your program?

D: Yes, it is really, really simple. So, all people do in this day and age is go to their smartphone, they download the app through the Google Play or Apple store. Once they’ve done that,, they enter their details. They do sign up with a credit card but what that enables us to do is actually give people access to our scheme for free – being like a library book where if you use our scheme and do it correctly and do the right thing with it, you’ll never be charged.

D: So, we wanted to remove all the barriers towards having access to a Green Caffeen reusable coffee cup. So, we’ve made the scheme completely free so you can now download the app, walk into any participating cafe and check out a Green Caffeen cup and then you can actually swap, drop or grab a fresh cup at any participating café. And you’ll never be charged and that’s the big thing that we’re very proud of that we’ve been able to achieve in our business model.

T: So, this is basically a, “Oh man, I forgot my coffee cup again. So, I want to take away a coffee. Can I get a Green Caffeen?” How many of these cups can I take out at any given time?

D: You can take two cups out at any given time, and that’s again controlled through the app on your phone. We knew that ideally our target market is that person that’s trying to use a reusable cup and struggled to do so. So, we know that if that person goes to the cafe on Monday and uses Green Caffeen, there could be a strong chance that on Tuesday they’d forget the cup. So, they’re allowed a second cup out with the app.

T: Okay so this is more like a “transition program for people that want to be more environmentally conscious but still haven’t gotten into the habit of bringing their own cup?”

D: Yeah, and I think it’s also – Martin puts it really well, sort of the lazy person’s reusable cup because you never actually have to remember your cup. You just have to remember your phone and from all the research and sort of analysis we did of the marketplace nobody leaves home without a phone these days. The phone is the sole source of everything. So, we thought, “Shy can we just build the technology into the phone and then enable people to have access to two reusable coffee cups through the technology and the phone?”

T: So, if I was an office worker, and I had more than one coffees a day – which a lot of people do… Do I just bring the coffee cup back with me at that time? Do I have to wash it?

D: No, not at all. No, no you can leave it sitting in your car for a week dirty. You just take it back, and all the cafes that we work with are very, very willing and happy to wash the cups. So, we make sure there’s a sanitation process that’s involved with every cafe coming on board. So they actually have to have access to a commercial dishwasher. So, all the cups are clean and sanitized correctly, stacked and then ready for you to walk back in and grab a fresh one when you’re ready.

Who’s Paying for the Cup?

T: It’s interesting to me that the customer’s not paying for the cup. Is the cafe paying for the cup?

D: No.

T:  Who’s paying for the cup?

D: Great question. We’ve been very, very fortunate. So, initially when we launched Green Caffeen now just over twelve months ago, about 14 months ago we realized that we had a business model that was going to be providing value to corporate universities, councils across Australia and across the world. What we wanted to do is to test that model and actually show the value in the model.

D: So, we had to sort of pay for the cups ourselves initially, and that was the outlay that we had and the belief in ourselves that the model was going to work. So, we spoke to our wives very, very nicely and asked if we could invest some money into this crazy idea and from there we developed the app.

D:   We bought a whole heap of cups, and we were able to form partnerships very early with councils that saw the problem that they had which is a commercial business, a cafe having waste go back into a council’s collection. So, for them it wasn’t just the council, but the business collecting that on site. What actually happens with a lot of these cups is they leave the café; people walk down the street, and they put it into a council bin. So, councils and universities across Australia have massive problems with waste. So, we’ve been very lucky to come in and solve a problem that they’ve had that they’ve had no real alternative solution to.

T: So, there’s a business case then for governments to get behind this program because they’re saving money on the landfill side.

D: Yea, and that’s the whole aim of it. We’ve worked out really, really quickly that mixed waste costs within Australia are on the increase. We have a recycling stream that people aren’t having as much faith in these days because of the news. We’re not sending it off to China and mixed recycling is going out of fashion. So, yeah we saw that really early on that if we could sort of target the market of the consumer, the cafe but also the council to come together as a collective solution to the problem, then we’d be on a bit of a winner and that’s why we haven’t stopped for the last 15 months.

This Start-up’s Growing Up Fast

T: Well you have been quite busy. I’ve been watching you on social media and it seems like you’re getting…

D: Sorry about that.

T: Were you on Planet Ark the other day? You got a nice plug from them. So, that was really good and the SBS, I saw that as well.

D: Most definitely.

T: So, you guys have been getting around. I am actually thinking about, from a business model perspective, how complex this is. You have so many stakeholders. You have all these cafe coffee drinkers, and they say, “Oh, I lost my cup. Do I got to pay for mine?” versus the cafe owners that are in and out of stock probably and then trying to bring them on board, and then you have all these government councils. Is it just you two managing all this?

D: At this stage it is. We’re just in the process of now actually expanding the team. But, to keep up with the demand we’ve had to. One thing that we realized really quickly is that we had to bring a model to the market that was very, very scalable. So, we eliminated all of the touch points that we could possibly to start with.

D: So, when we touch something to start with, we would go, “How can we streamline this so we never have to do that again?” So, we’ve done that, we’ve built a model where most of the efficiencies are actually built into the technology and through the back-end. So, we don’t really have to do a great deal once it’s all up and running except for continuing to motivate people to jump on board and encourage the use of the cup.

T: Yeah. Okay. Who spend the most time dealing with cafes right now?

M: It’s probably joint actually. 

T: It’s probably joint.

M: We’re lucky now. Very, very early on, at first to get the model up and running, it required us to go into cafes and almost sell it I suppose. But within six months that stopped pretty quick, and now we have cafes reaching out to us all around Australia. So, the fact of finding cafes isn’t hard. We’ve got plenty of cafes that we’re trying to get cups to. So, it’s just word of mouth. It’s pretty much gone viral around Australia, and every day we have cafes register.

How to Register as a Cafe?

T: So, if somebody wants to register as a café, then basically what? They jump online?

M: They jump on jump online. You just fill in the details, register your café. We send out some instructional videos and a little “How To” email, and they get the cup sent out to them. They’re ready to go.

D: An exciting part for us is that we’ve tested that model multiple times and different ways of doing it. We’ve got it nailed because we know that there’s cafes, and we’ve never met before. We ship them out the cups and all instructional details and information and then two minutes later they’re up and running, and they’re already checking cups in and out of the cafe with their customers.  

D: And there’s some that even get too excited and before they’ve even got their cups start announcing it on social media that we’re going to be part of Green Caffeen and we’re like, “Oh, quick! Let’s get the cups out really quickly!” Because they start getting a following, and people start saying, “Hey, when’s it happening?” and they all get excited and there’s no better time to take advantage of change in the marketplace than when people are excited.

M: And we’re starting to really attract those cafes that want to make a change which makes it easy for us.

Day and a Life of Damien and Martin

T: Tell me about a day in your life. I keep thinking you guys are on the road all the time because I’m watching your social media, and it seems like you’re always in a different cafe and you have pictures of young and old who are drinking out of a Green Caffeen cup. What’s a day in a life like for you right now?

D: Well, this morning, my morning kicks off. I go to the gym every morning. I try and remain disciplined and structured. So, I get up at 4:40 every morning regardless, and I go to the gym, train for about an hour and a half. Start with a coffee, finish with a coffee and then get home do the dad duties, the family duties and then by that sort of eight o’clock, 8:30 ready to roll and get Green Caffeen. This morning we left home a little bit earlier. We’re on the road down here to Canberra, but I try to be as structured as I possibly can and as disciplined as I can in that order.

T: What about you Martin?

M: I’m almost identical. Yeah, I go to the gym every morning, same time 4:40. Do a workout, come home breakfast, get the kids off to school and then start the day. And it’s a busy day. There’s a lot of e-mails to answer, a lot of inquiries. A lot of cups to get shipped out. There’s a lot of back-end work because it’s not all the glamour. But it’s tough sometimes, but it’s rewarding, and it doesn’t stop does it. You can be answering an e-mail at 10 o’clock at night. I mean Damien does the social media, and he’ll do things all day. So, it’s a good job though. I wouldn’t change it for the world.

D: We’ve always sort of worked it out. When someone’s sitting staring at their phone in silence not engaging or talking to each other – but we’re working on something or something’s happening or someone’s shouted us out or you’ve got to react to something like that. But, we get a real buzz out of it.

The Green Caffeen Movement

D: We wondered, when we first started this, we said,  “Wonder if we can create this Green Caffeen movement? Can we start a movement where people got so excited they’d start to share it on social media and engage with their friends about it?” And that happens multiple times throughout a day now.

D: We started really, really early on with our hashtags for social media which was “Green Caffeen Team.” And we said, “Well, this is a problem that we can’t solve ourselves, but if we all join in together, we’ll be able to nail it on the head.” And that’s proven very, very effective and exciting for us because we now have people, cafes, councils, celebrities. People grab a green cup and say I’m part of the team. I’m doing my bit for, you know, single use plastics.

Dividing-up Duties

T: Yeah. So, Damien you work on the social media.

D: Try to.

T: It’s obviously just a small piece, but a very important piece of your entire day. How else are you divvying up your roles?

D: Yeah. When we first started we did a bit of everything. In the last three to four weeks, given the volume of work that we’ve now got coming at us, we’ve actually split our roles. So, I’ve come from a sales background, pretty lucky to sort of have a bit of a knack for social media. So, I look after the engagement, the selling, the growth. All the sort of strategies around engagement for Green Caffeen and Martin’s well, what are you doing?

M: Probably more logistic. Probably just getting the cafes set up and the follow up in regards to that.

Working from Home(s)

T: Yeah. And are you working out of your homes right now?

D:  Yeah. Yeah.

T: Are you sharing an office in one of the houses or are you just working independently?

D: We’re very lucky. There’s no more than 150 meters between our two houses. So, it depends on who’s doing what at home and which kids at home sick or who’s doing what, and we meet. But a lot of the cafes get a regular workout. But yeah, certainly our warehouse and distribution is within our joint garages. That’s going to hit a point, well, it’s actually going to hit a point in the next couple of weeks, so we have to change that. So, yeah we’re excited about taking that next step.

More about Damien and Martin

T: Let’s go back a little bit. I want to know more about you. There’s certainly enough written about your histories and the fact that you basically have two stay-at-home dads that started this business. First of all, how did you guys meet?

M: We met through our kids. So, I think it was our two sons become friends at school, and then our daughters became friends, and then our wives became friends, and I think it was a family barbecue one day.

T: So, how long ago was that?

D: Eight years ago

M:  Eight years ago.

T: Eight years ago. So, you’ve known each other for a while.

D: Yeah, a little bit now.

The Business Idea

T: And the business idea. Who came up with the idea?

D: Well, it was quite funny. My own sister was originally involved in the in the sort of the conception of Green Caffeen and what was brought to the table and the idea say 18 months ago looks completely different to where it stands today.

T: What was her original idea?

D:  Well it was just that, “Can you have a swap and go coffee cup? Can you give people cups and they can swap them and drop them in any participating café?” We looked at that and went yeah that’s probably the basis of the idea but the development of the app, the cafes, the back-end, the reporting the system, all these other things we’ve had to sort of develop on the fly.

T: So, Martin’s sister originally had this idea and then how did you two get involved?

M: She gave it to us and said hey guys have a go at this, have some fun. She knew we were both stay at home dads. My sister knew that we both had some mental health problems and were probably looking at getting back into the real world if that makes sense. So, she said here, I’ve got this bit of an idea. Have a run with it and have some fun and it’s probably like any brother/sister relationship. You can’t give my sister too much credit. I think we, as a brother, sort of tuned it and fine-tuned it a bit better. 

T: It certainly is front of mind for most people right now.

D: It’s exploded Tammy. I mean it’s really exploded. We set ourselves a little bit of an internal target for our business to be in front of the message before the message started, and we were very lucky to get pushed to launch by our local sustainability and waste manager there in Kiama, and we’ve just ridden the wave and we’ve been very lucky to be on the forefront of the messaging at the moment.

D: It’s changed significantly, and what we thought was going to take three years probably took six months and the last six months have seen significant change in the way people talk about it. I mean just during the last weeks, we’ve had Boris Johnson, the leader of the UK walking down the street, walking down to a press conference where we might have been, and his public aide holding a single use cup and so I was told, “You can’t be seen with that! Give it back to me!”

D: And you know, you had a Greens member that’s had a single use cup photoshopped so that it was a reusable cup. The messaging is out there now –  twelve months ago was not around at all. That was nowhere to be seen whereas in the last six months it’s now being seen to be an image that you don’t want to be seen with having a single use item.

Finding Purpose Again

T: So, you guys started the company 15 months ago is that right?

D: That’s correct.

 T: A lot’s happened in 15 months. I mean you guys definitely were ahead of this curve. What actually gave you the inspiration to start this business?

D: I was a stay at home dad with some mental health issues, so I spent probably five or six years of the prime of my life being a stay at home dad. Stay at home dads involve running kids around but also involves having a lot of time to yourself when the kids are at school, and I spent a lot of that time just sitting and watching the world go by,

D: And here in Kiama, we had a couple that every morning they’d be walking past with one of those claws you pick up rubbish with, and they’d have a bag and they’d be picking up rubbish. I sat there and watched them multiple times until the curiosity got to me. I got out the car and said, “Can I ask you guys why you’re doing this?” And they said, “We just love Kiama, and we want to keep the place clean.”

D:  And it was that moment that I went, “Geez, that’s a really cool thing to do, and I should be part of it.” So, I think the switch flicked a little bit for me where I started picking up rubbish. We started doing beach cleanups. We started following people like Take 3 For The Sea, some of these really cool organizations. So everywhere, we’d go, we get a chance to do a little beach cleanup.

D: I’ve made a pact to myself personally that I’ll never walk past a single use coffee cup on the ground without picking it up, and I’ve picked up some pretty ordinary looking ones in some pretty silly places, and Martin’s like, “Oh here he goes again. He’s off to pick up a cup.” But…

That passion was instilled by us by watching what other people were doing and realizing that if we all did it together the world would be a much better place.

T: So, the interest right away with the rubbish and the plastic pollution and certainly the coffee cups that we see on the beaches. Now for people who are not from Australia, Kiama is how far from Sydney?

D: It’s two hours south and you should visit it’s a beautiful part of the world. You’ll thoroughly enjoy it.

T: It’s quite famous for the big…

D: The blowhole, the world’s largest blowhole.

Kiama Blowhole
Kiama Blowhole
Credit: VisitNSW.com

T: Yeah. What exactly is a blowhole for people that don’t know?

D: It’s just the geo-formation. I can’t really explain that properly. It’s a hole that water comes out makes a big spout.

M: It’s like a whale spout.

T: But it’s made out of cliffs?

D: Yeah, it’s just natural over the years, and it’s a lot of volcanic rock down in Kiama and it’s just been formed naturally over the years.

T: It is great, as I have been there a few times. Okay. So, we understand your passion. I’m curious to know given how crazy your business is…

D: Can I just mention one thing on passion because this story sticks with me? Martin was very lucky. He and his family in his last few years spent a fair bit of time on a boat. So, they actually went live on a boat for nine months, and I was very lucky enough as a mate to be able to go and spend a bit of time on that boat as well.

D: And we had multiple stories where we’ll do sailing along, and you’d see a thong (aka flip flop) in the middle of the ocean. You’d go, “How the bloody hell did that thong just get out here?” Or you’d see a bottle, you’d see a bag, or you’d see something. So, I think for me the impacts were sort of starting to notice something. Once you start to notice something, you become very hyper vigilant, and you see it everywhere, and I know you sort of say the same thing from your journeys.

M: Yeah. We’d sail up the east coast of Australia and you’d go to remote island off the coast of Queensland and there would be plastic on it, and it’s not little pieces. It was big bits of plastic on this beach and beautiful remote island and every island we went to there had plastic on it.

M: And, in going back to that when we lived on the boat. You’d go into a food shop, and we were pretty tight for space on the boat so you do a food shop for a couple of weeks and we put everything on the big table and all the kids would help us, and we’d unpack things. Just to make more room –  you’d unpack it from the box. 

M: And the rubbish that was left over from our food – our food was a third of the size compared to what it was when we bought it. So, you’d be carrying three lots of trolley loads back to the boat and at the end of the day you’d probably have a trolley load of food. So, it just sort of makes you realize we use a hell of a lot of waste, and nine times out of ten that stuff can’t be recycled.

T:  And if we go back to your sister basically handing you an idea. Why did she think that you’d be interested?

M: I think she knew that we probably needed something to get out of the house. So, I think we were stuck in a rut and we’ve known each other for eight years. We know both of us went through some mental health problems. We both know how bad we were, and we were in some pretty bad places, and I think at some points we were lucky to get out of those places.

M: Some days, I couldn’t get out of bed to make my kids lunches, and my wife actually wrote me a list of what went into school lunches, and even though I’d done it weeks before I just couldn’t. I’d get stuck at putting things into lunches. Couldn’t get over that. So, once we had this project, and it has taken off, we’ve never looked back.

D: It’s also how we met. We met through our kids and then one day I said to Martin. I said, I’m thinking about getting back into the gym, feeling a bit down and out. And so we started training together, and then those training days we’d get up at 6:00 and train at six and then we’d train again at 10 and then we’d run around.

D: So, we were probably spending more time with each other at some periods of our life for two or three years than we were with the rest of our family because our wives were out there working and doing their best. And we had a lot of time to sit around and kick some ideas around, and thankfully some of those ideas didn’t come to fruition.

T: What other ideas did you have?

D: No, you don’t want to know. Some pretty crazy elements.

M: We won’t discredit these ideas.

D: Crazy elements but we’re always talking about problems and solutions. And we’ve always looked at things and thought,  “Just how do we come up with a really easy solution to that?”  And I think most of the credit we’ve been given for with Green Caffeen is people just come up and say why didn’t I think of that. That’s such a simple solution, and we were very lucky.

D: We got a great tech developer who understood exactly what we were. He was a coffee drinker, a regular takeaway coffee drinker, and he’s now switched his habits. We’ve met some fantastic people that have done all their graphics and our design – all these fun sort of things. They have just understood what we’re trying to do.

D:  We look at ourselves daily if not hourly sometimes. You go, “Bloody hell, how have we come here?” And I think it’s been from the last six years of dark, deep terrible places where, as Martin said, we may not have come up on the other side of, to now having a passion. We’re doing good, we’re creating community, we’re bringing change to people’s lives, we’re creating positive impacts across the world. And why wouldn’t you get want to get out of bed? We spring out a bit now. We’re like,“Oh, what have we got today? Let’s go do this!”

We’ve got a new passion for life.

Business Qualifications?

T: What were you doing before that made you qualified to start a business?

M: To start this? I probably had no qualifications to start this. I think that’s probably why it’s gone so well for us because you sort of come in with no expectations, and we just learn along the way.

D: Certainly not an eco-tech start-up as we call ourselves sometimes. We had zero qualifications. I drink a lot of coffee and realised the problem that I was having personally. That was probably my best qualification. Before that I was a real estate agent, so I ran a couple of franchise real estate offices for a number of years in Sydney’s North West.

D: I worked 80 hours a week. Had the European cars and the big mortgages and all these sort of fun sort of things that led you to push harder and go bigger and go stronger and unfortunately for me that was my down-bringing as well. All these hours I just couldn’t keep up with and sort of ran me into the ground, and I realised I had some underlying issues there as well.

T: What about you Martin?

M: I was a police officer for a few years.

D: Which is his best strength because he’s logistic, he’s task orientated, he ticks things off and he doesn’t give himself enough credit for that. But that police officer, report writing, bringing things to the table, making sure it’s diligently done and handled properly is one of his great strengths.

M: He wants a pay raise.

D: Granted!

Working for Purpose versus Money

T: Are you paying yourself right now?

M: Everyone involved in Green Caffeen is on the same wage at the moment.

T: Zero?

M: Yeah.

D: We laugh and say we’ll put you on the CEO wage if you would like to be and everyone goes, “Oh, that’s fantastic! What is it?” We go, “You don’t want to know.”  Now, we’ve got a massive passion in what we believe, and we’ve got some strategies around that. We really do now and even in the last few weeks since we first spoke with you, Tammy we’ve now got opportunities reaching out across the world. So, we actually have five international partnerships now lined up for Green Caffeen.

T: Oh, that’s fantastic.

D: And people just say, “Can we bring it here? Can we do this? Can we do that?” And we’re like, “Yeah, we’ll make that happen.” If you really believe in what we’re trying to do, there is a way, we’ll make it happen. It might take us another six months, but we’re working overtime to form allegiances with the right people – to understand what your passions are, who you are, and what’s your environment, and how can we help you have a similar impact as to what we’re doing across Australia.

T: So, you’ve been a business for 15 months. You haven’t paid yourself. You must have some very understanding wives looking after you.

M: Well, I think they’ve seen where we’ve come from and the big change that we’ve made in ourselves mentally and physically in the last probably 18 months, two years this has been happening. And, I think they know where we’ve come from and see a different person today than it was back then.

D: I think we put that on our website. We’re getting more out of this than anybody actually really understands. If this all fell apart tomorrow, we are different people. We’ll get back in the workforce. We’ll go do whatever it might take, a new start-up whatever. We’ve changed, and we’ve come from some terrible places. So we do get a lot more out of this than people realise, but that’s also part of our driving force, as well is we don’t want this to stop.

We’re just going to ride this little green monster, as we call it, and give it as much as we can and make it as big as possible.

M: You know what? You go to work on a Monday morning on any other job, and you got 20 or 30 emails to open.  At Green Caffeen, with the head office at the dining table, most of those e-mails are people reaching out telling you how good they love it, and how much they want to bring it to their cafe and so forth. So, it’s a great reward. Every day you are rewarded definitely.

T: I think it’s so interesting how both you, having some challenges with mental health have found some relief in starting a business with a cause, and how that, even though you’re probably working crazy hours right now, that’s actually energizing you. A lot of people when they start a business, it’s incredibly stressful, and if you had a mental health issue a lot of people would go backwards. But you guys are just going strength to strength right now.

D: Still got a mental health battle. I have to keep in check regularly with how I’m feeling in my moods and all that sort of thing. So, the mental health stuff doesn’t go away. It actually probably gets exacerbated sometimes. But I’ve learnt personally to handle those, and I’m a much smarter and more insightful person.

D: So, if I need time, I take time. If I’m struggling, I’ll take the moment to switch off and tune out a little bit but then I keep structure and discipline and surround myself with routine and always find the sort of things that enables us to keep forging forward. And as Martin said when you get a little pat on the back every five minutes of the day by someone saying, “I really enjoy what you’re doing.” That’s a little dopamine release, and that’s a little kick, and it’s another little move forward. So, it’s really, really exciting.

T: It probably helps too that both you understand that same challenge. So when one needs a day off, the other guy can…

D: There’s no days off, Tammy! What are you talking about?

T: You guys told me you took time out.

D: I know. We take time – maybe half an hour or so, go for a swim, go for a run.

T: Ha Ha! But, at least the other person could kind of understand where you’re coming from.

M: Yes, I think so definitely.

D: For sure.

T: What do your children think of all this?

D: They laugh. Two 40-year-old blokes on social media. We had zero budget for media when we first started this. So, we thought, “Let’s just go to social media and make it a bit entertaining and engaging.” I don’t know whether we’ve successfully have done that, but people have given us a little bit of feedback to say that, “We really enjoy watching your travels and enjoy what you’re up to.” And we’ve toned that back a little bit, but more people are crying out for this silly stuff, and we’ve got a few more fun things planned in the near future. But our kids, what do our kids think?

M: Well, they’ve changed. I think without sounding too common, we’re good role models for them now. Well, most parents are good role models for the kids, but they see an environmental side, and they’ve seen the change that we’ve made, and I think they’ve definitely changed the way they use things. I think they’ve change the way they consume things. I think they stop and ask themselves, “Do I really need that before they buy it or is there another option or is there a better way for the environment?” So, they’ve definitely changed.

T: And also, they’re probably impacted by your personal changes as well, not just the business?

M: Yes.

D: Yeah, for sure. With parenting, so I won’t go to too deep into parenting –  but parenting is one of those fun things, and you can tell your kids what to do or you can show them what to do, and the last two years we’ve shown them what to do. And I think they’re very, very proud of that, but that’s given us an element of pride to share with our kids that no matter what you’re going through at any particular stage of your life, there’s always a way out of it.

M: And I think we’ve changed that – you just tell the kids now, “If you’ve got a passion, just do it. Still go to school and still try hard but if you’ve got a passion, follow your dreams.” I think if anything, that follow your dreams is probably being not pushed onto them, but shown to them that, “I don’t need to leave Year 12, and think about my career and buy a house and so forth. If I’ve got a passion or a dream, I’ll go chase it.”

Experts on Not Being Experts

T: Probably also, it shows that you don’t actually have to be an expert in something to make something happen, right?

D: No, we are experts at not being experts.

M: Very, very early on we realised that there was a lot of fields we weren’t experts in.

T: But, you figured it out?

D: We made smart decisions. We realised that we weren’t experts, and we outsourced that information or skill, and brought people along with us that shared our passion but also had the skills to fill the holes. And, I think that’s why we’ve once again by default – we were talking about this, this morning – why have we been able to achieve what we’ve been able to achieve in the last 12 to 13 months.

D: That is because if we don’t know the answer, we go find the solution to it straight away. But, not only find the solution, we find the person that has the passion and energy that we do, but is also an expert in the field, and that’s a winning formula that’s working well so far.

M: And it’s everyone that we’ve worked with just love the idea. They love it, they get it. They are coffee drinkers; they know they’ve tried to have reusable cup and it’s too bloody hard sometimes. They forget it, they don’t wash it. So, they look at this and think that’s a really great idea.

M: So, our app developer, we met a couple of people to develop an app and the first couple it was really hard to sell it, and they really didn’t get it. Then, we met our current developer and within less than a minute, you could just see his brain working it out going, “Oh, this is what I’m going to do!” And it’s like his baby – It means, (us to him) “You have it. You do the things that you think to do with it because we aren’t app experts at all.”

M:  It’s like the graphic designer was saying to us, “We want to do this.” And then when they started to work he (app developer) would go, “Can you tell the graphic designer to give me a call?” And we’re like, “Do you guys just want to talk by yourselves because if it goes through us we’re bound to stuff it up?” So, they just worked in the background, and we’d sort of roughly tell them what we want to do and then couple weeks later it’s done.

T: Well, you obviously found partners with common values.

D: That’s key. That’s definitely key, and I know our app team regularly saves us. “Sorry guys, we’ve got just another little thing for you.” And they go, “No, we enjoyed working on this one because we watch the cup count to go up, and we watched the people join, and we know that you guys are leading the way and having a bit of an impact and somehow we’re a part of that as well.”

T: I think that’s really good advice for any entrepreneur, “If you’re not an expert in something, just find the best person you can with the values aligned.”

D: Values aligned is one of the key elements. We have definitely said no to people over the time. We’ve gone, “Yeah, we’re probably not quite suited to each other even though you might be the best person in that field.” (And then)…

Let’s go find somebody that’s you know equally as best but has the same sort of passion as we do.

The New Cup

T: Let’s talk about some of your future developments. I’m looking at a cup here. It is a special cup.

D: It’s still white. It hasn’t been colored yet, Tammy. It’s a prototype.

T: It’s still white compared to the green one which we’ll put on the show notes so people can see what your cup looks like. But tell us more about this cup that’s sitting right next to it.

D:  Yeah look, when we first started Green Caffeen we had an idea to implement a circular economy. So we never wanted to use virginal material.  We wanted to sort of bring waste as a resource, and 18 months ago in the Australia marketplace that wasn’t much of a discussion point and it wasn’t actually able to be implicated within a business. So, we weren’t able to do what we wanted to do originally.

D: So, we came to market with a cup that we could get made here in Australia from a virginal polypropylene. We made sure that we could handle that cup correctly at the end of its life and turn it back into new cups. So, we were trying to go circular and move towards that waste free, zero waste model, but deep down we always wanted to push towards a model where we could actually use waste as a resource. So, we went out to source and secure supply of FDA approved food grade recycled content now here in Australia which is massive.

T: That is new, isn’t it?

D: Yeah, it’s brand new and we’re lucky to form allegiances with the right people that we’re at the forefront of this but also had a passion to work with us and bring change to the marketplace. So, yeah this this new cup will be made from food grade recycled plastic here in Australia and waste will be then turned into a resource which will be turned into a reusable which will go around, around, around, around the end of its lifespan. It should be turned back into a reusable and closing the loop on the whole process. So, it’ll be a zero waste reusable coffee cup.

T: So, this food-grade product, which wasn’t available until recently, will be actually recycled when enough people use it. And how many how many uses do you reckon a coffee cup can use?

D: So, we’re just still testing. The cups that we currently have at the moment are three to four years (lifecycles). We still hope to achieve the same target with the new cup, but we’re still just in the process, so you’ve caught us very early. We’re still just testing that at the moment, but there’s no reason why we won’t be (able to)  get three years plus from the cup in the commercial environment.

T: And that’s with how many circulations do you reckon? How many?

M: Numerous.

D: We have to think 500 a year.

T: So, we’re looking at 1500 times that coffee cup is used, and then you’re recycling it again back into another coffee cup.

M: And the current (virgin plastic) cup (only) has to be used 15 times before it has a positive impact on the environment. So, one of our current green cups is equivalent to 15 paper cups.

T: Paper cups?

M: Yes.

D: We haven’t actually even looked at the statistical data on what a reusable cup from a waste resource will have because that’s just not been available. So, we’re just in the process of looking at that now.

T: Well also, the energy required to make that new product is actually less than a virgin (plastic) product.

D: 100% and one thing we’re really, really proud of, Tammy – we looked at how we’re going to implement this model, and when we first started we said, “We’ll go build a factory. We’ll set up washing facilities there. We’ll collect all the cups on a daily basis.  We’ll transport them back to our factory. We’ll wash them, and then we’ll ship them back to the cafes ready for the next day.”  And it was just massive resource waste going around, around, around creating new infrastructure for these cups to be handled.

D: So, we looked at the cafe and said, “Cafes have everything we need there. If they’re willing to partner with us and work with us to reduce waste and make an economic saving for themselves as well, let’s just roll within the model that already exists.” And that’s exactly what we’ve done. So, our model is very, very resource light and it’s even resource lighter – can I say that – and we’ve got this new cup coming out very shortly.

T: It’s really interesting that the solution that you came up with, which was the simplest implement, is also the greenest in terms of carbon emissions.

D: Yeah. Once again, we look at them. We’re not geniuses. It was just a simple solution to a big problem, and we’ve been very lucky to have the execution available to us to pull it off.

An Exciting Announcement

T: Yeah brilliant. Let’s go ahead to talk further about the announcement that you’re about to have with the ACT Government. Go ahead and tell us more about that.

D: So, let’s go back a little bit about 18 months ago the ACT Government started talking about banning single use coffee cups. They sort of put it out there a little bit. It got momentum. The press got a hold of it, and it really ran some big stories. It was very similar to what we’ve achieved in the Inner West of Sydney. The mayor came out there about the same time and said we want to implement a reusable coffee cup scheme.

D: So, let’s go back 18 months ago. We hit Twitter like we’ve never hit Twitter before. We started tweeting all the ministers involved. We started getting anybody that could get our story and message. By then, we were only weeks into business, and we thought we’re the perfect solution to this problem, but we were not maybe two or three weeks into our existence. So we had to go and get some runs on the board before it happened. But very luckily enough we won the inner west trial…

M: In Sydney.

D: …in Sydney, and that trial has now escalated to a full-blown scheme. So, they’ve actually cancelled the trial program, and they’ve gone straight to a, ‘let’s just implement a scheme and have it going forever.’

T: So, how big is that scheme?

D: It will hit 60 cafes within the next couple of weeks, but the LGA – the Local Government Area of the inner west is one of the biggest and heaviest populated councils within Australia. So, it’s a big area.

T: Okay.

D: It’s a big area. Let’s get back onto the story. The story was then that the ACT Government came out and they said they wanted to run a reusable cup trial once again. So, they’ve put out some tenders, out for some information and then once again we went to Twitter. We were very lucky to come down here and meet some of the people involved and sort of share our dream and yeah, it’s been six weeks of very exciting challenges for us to sort of get this to the marketplace. But we’ve been very lucky to be, by the time this podcast comes out, announced as the successful candidate to implement a reusable cup trial here in the ACT.

M: But prior to the tender going out we had a massive interest from cafes in Canberra and when we tried to hold back knowing that this was going to happen later in the year, but we couldn’t. There was such a strong interest from cafes wanting to jump on board with Green Caffeen that we just had to roll it out.

T: And then they couldn’t get involved right away because?

D: Well there’s a scale of economies for us. We have to partner, and we need support and funding from local councils or governments or organisations. So, for us we sort of looked and said okay, let’s get 20 cafes up and running. Let’s look at the ones that are sort of crying out the most, and let’s show what can be done in the ACT prior to any of these being announced.

D: Now we’ve already got a 20, 22, 23 cafes with a lot more registered in the back-end ready to go. They’re already operating and running Green Caffeen here in the ACT. So, we put it out there. We thought, “let’s support the people that want to support us.” And we’ve been very, very lucky to win this tender for us as a little start-up from what we know of as one of the first reusable cup’s that’s state-sponsored or territory.

M: Statewide.

D: Statewide here in the ACT, (first) across the world. So, we regularly get people reaching out to us worldwide now saying, “Hey, can you do this? Can you do that? How have you done it?”  And we go, “why are they calling us?” But we’re working it out. They’re calling us for a reason.

T: Hey congratulations, guys! That is huge to convince any government to do anything new. But to be able to have a consumer-led change for the environment is even bigger than people realise. I’m not surprised that people from overseas are reaching out to you to try to figure out how to do similar things. So, congratulations on winning that contract.

D:  Thank you.

M: Thank you.

D: And it’s not just our congratulations. Congratulations to people that actually care about trying to implement reusable schemes and systems versus getting away from single use. I think a lot of the messaging over the last 12 to 18 months has been,  Now we can recycle this, we can compost this, we can do something a lot better.” But as the message gets bigger, people now are saying that’s probably still not the best solution.

D: You look at the waste hierarchy, the waste hierarchy is Refuse, Reduce then Recycle. So, recycle from what we grew up with as, “Recycle is going to fix all the problems –  just put it in the yellow bin and she’ll be alright” to now it’s their very lowest portion of the waste hierarchy. So, we look at it and go refuse. Well, you can refuse a coffee cup, and then how do you get your coffee? Well, next stage is you are going to have to reuse, and that’s where Green Caffeen fits in beautifully.

How to Connect with Green Caffeen

T: Brilliant. Is there any advice or request you have from our listeners?

D: Well I know you’ve got a worldwide market and an international market so if you here in Australia you can just download the Green Caffeen app and find a local participating café, but not to support us, support them. Go and give them a little pat on back for implementing this scheme and wanting to make a change in your local community. That’s the best thing we can do.

D: If you’re a cafe you can jump on board you can go to https://greencaffeen.com.au/ and register your cafe. If you’re a university, a council, anybody that just wants to talk to us about reducing waste and going zero waste with takeaway coffee cups, we would love to hear from you.

T: Okay, so we’ll put all those contact details on the show note in case people want to reach out to you personally, but also as you say the apps are available on Apple Store as well as the Google Play Store.

D: Thank you.

T: Guys, thank you so much for joining me today, and thank you for all the amazing things that you’re doing for coffee drinkers, for the environment, for the cafes and working with government to find a single solution for all the waste that’s going into the landfills – that it’s really generated from something as simple as a coffee cup.

D: Tammy, thank you and congratulations on your initiative and your interests as well. We really appreciate having five minutes to chat with you – maybe or little bit longer – with people that actually care about what we’re trying to do so thank you very much. 

T: You are very welcome.

M: Thanks Tammy.

T: Cheers.

How a little bit of plastic can do so much good and bad

Have you ever wondered how plastic products are made? They begin as a petroleum liquid or gas, and are turned into these pellets or microbeads below:

Virgin plastic pellets

I took this picture at one of the manufacturing plants I visited this week. These pieces are about the size of a rice kernel, and the few black ones in this batch will make the whole mix that colour. Because of the size of the beads, they’re easy to melt and then mould into something useful.

Now imagine shipping containers full of these microbeads spilling into the ocean. This is what was found in 2017 on beaches in the UK after that occurred.

Nurdles on a beach
Credit: Deborah Fuchs

The reality is that any plastic product will eventually break back down into these rice size pieces and even smaller over time. Yet, it will be centuries before they can degrade back to petroleum.

This is why there’s so much talk about plastic in the news these days. This is not new knowledge. It’s just that the physical impacts to our environment and wildlife have finally reached such high levels that it’s hard to ignore.

Plastic isn’t a bad product by itself. It’s light, durable, flexible, and lasts forever – the same traits that are also causing harm to Mother Nature. The challenge for product manufacturers is to design their goods for the full cycle of life, not just the making stage.

If everyone thought about the disposal of the product and not just the making and using stages, they would probably make it very differently.

At The Refoundry, we will have a take back system in place where any used product can be sent back to use to be donated for reuse or recycled back into the same product. It will no doubt be expensive do to this with storage and transport costs, but I don’t see how we can consider ourselves an environmental social enterprise and not do this. I can only hope that our customers will value this too.

Procrastinating because I’m not sure that I have a good idea

Read the ACT Government Discussion Paper about a proposed single-use plastic ban. A similar proposal is being considered around the world right now. Single-use plastic, particularly soft plastics are the hardest to recycle and now there’s less demand for even the recycled harder plastics since the Asian plastic export bans. Something must change to avoid bigger environmental problems in Australia. It’s good that this government is looking at proactive measures.

Met with the business accelerator. They invited me to apply for their program. They also asked me some good questions like – why haven’t I already started prototyping my product idea? I guess, I’m not 100% convinced it’s a good idea yet.