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'Stupidest idea ever': KeepCup founder Abigail Forsyth on how the reusable cup nearly didn't happen

A woman smiles while sitting holding a glass coffee cup, open plan office through window in background.
It was Abigail Forsyth's persistence that stopped her reusable cup from ending up in the bin.

ABC Radio Melbourne: Simon Leo Brown

The Melbourne office of reusable cup company KeepCup is exactly what you might expect: based in funky Fitzroy, stylishly open plan and smelling strongly of freshly ground coffee.

It's one of three offices worldwide for the company which claims to have kept billions of disposable cups out of landfill.

But its story could have been very different.

Part of the problem

For 10 years, founder Abigail Forsyth and her brother Jamie ran cafes in Melbourne's CBD selling coffee in disposable cups.

When they started in 1998, takeaway cups were still uncommon; Ms Forsyth remembers one customer drinking from a blue paper cup complaining, "I feel like a baby drinking out of this thing".

"Fast forward 10 years later in the business and everyone's drinking out of disposable cups, in fact often people were doing it sitting in [cafes]," she said.

Common reusable cups such as thermos mugs didn't fit under espresso machines and didn't come in the standard sizes for takeaway coffee.

"It was an awkward commercial exchange about price and size, so we endeavoured to make our own," Ms Forsyth said.

A glass reusable coffee cup sits below a group head as espresso coffee pours.
Coffee customers now commonly bring their own cups to be filled with a caffeine fix.

ABC Radio Melbourne: Simon Leo Brown

Leaky cups, legal issues

While prototyping the reusable cup, Ms Forsyth said a designer described the product as "the stupidest idea I have ever seen".

Undeterred, they sold cups off the prototype to a company in Sydney that wanted them as a gift for an event — but there were a few problems with the first production run.

"[They] called me and said, 'I can't accept these cups, they're not reliable enough; some of them leak and they're too hot to hold'," Ms Forsyth recalled.

Once they had a cup that could hold liquid, they held a stall at a Melbourne design expo and sold 1,000 in six hours.

But many cafes refused to allow their customers to use the cups, fearing they were illegal for health reasons.

"We had to get legal advice from one of the leading law firms in Melbourne saying that using a reusable cup would not contravene the health regulations," Ms Forsyth said.

A long way to go

Ms Forsyth said the initial trials taught her that "if people believe in you, they will help you if they can".

The company that received the faulty cups kept its order for a future event and had its health and safety team look over the next batch to ensure they were ready for general use.

Baristas stopped grumping about reusable cups and started congratulating customers who brought the cups to be filled with their caffeine fix.

A man stands in front of a tram filled with coffee cups.
The ABC's Craig Reucassel demonstrates how many coffee cups Australians throw out every half hour.

But Ms Forsyth said the enormity of the problem of takeaway coffee cups, highlighted by the ABC's War On Waste, still keeps her up at night.

"We're selling a lot of cups and so I'm thinking, 'where are these cups going, are people using them?'," she said, comparing the problem to people who join the gym but never go.

What keeps Ms Forsyth going is seeing people with her cups on the street.

"That's just such a thrill, and I can see they've made a commitment."