While many people have KeepCups to grab a coffee on the go, a Melbourne startup has come up with a smart inventory system that lets people use and return cups as needed.
Launched at six Melbourne cafes this past November, The Cup eXchange (TCX) has claimed the title of the nation’s first smartphone-enabled circular economy coffee cup subscription service, with plans ranging from $3-6 per month.
The startup was founded by brothers Marty, who has a background in business and marketing, and Jeremy Rowell, a software developer with electrical engineering and computer science qualifications.
Marty Rowell said the inspiration for TCX came in 2017 from the ABC’s War on Waste, which made the telling observation that the volume of coffee cups thrown away every half hour could fill a Melbourne tram.
Rather than designing a better cup to reduce waste, the Rowells decided to create a system that retained the convenience of disposable cups by allowing people to borrow cups from cafes and return them to drop-off points after use to be washed and passed on.
“If you’ve got a personal reusable cup … you’ve still got to wash it, still got to carry it, still got to remember it,” Rowell explained.
Borrow, don’t own
The TCX system is based on material custodianship, one of the underpinning principles of the circular economy. This means that the material in products is loaned to consumers for use, then returned to be reused, remanufactured or recycled.
The company achieves this goal by identifying each cup with a unique mini QR code that allows it to be tracked to users, drop boxes, exchange points, wash facilities and cafes.
When a user subscribes to the service, they also receive a unique QR code, which can be scanned on their phone at a cafe and linked to the code of the cup they are using.
Each user can borrow up to two cups at a time. If a cup isn’t returned within 14 days, the user is charged a fee, which is refunded on return.
The cups are manufactured from a high-quality polymer known as tritan, which was designed as a glass replacement. The company states on their website that cups have been tested to withstand more than 4000 cycles in an industrial washer.
And when cups reach the end of their useful lives, they will be crushed, remanufactured and returned to service.
During a two-month pilot at PwC’s Sydney and Melbourne offices, 3000 subscribers filled the TCX cups 40,000 times. If the service takes off nationwide, it could make a big impact on the number of disposable cups that end up in landfill – TCX estimates that 3.3 million takeaway coffees are purchased across the country each day.
So far, the company estimates it has saved more than 55,000 disposable cups from landfill.
As well as being good for the environment, the system makes financial sense, Rowell said.
“The cost-per-use comes right down and is much, much lower than a paper cup,” he explained.
The founders have also hinted that there is potential for their inventory system to be applied to other problem wastes, stating that it is designed to be a sustainable exchange system to replace single-use items.