Cupclub founder Safia Qureshi: 'Recycling is not going to save us'

Written by: Jo Gallacher | Published:
Cupclub founder Safia Qureshi. Photography by Charles Milligan

While the rest of the world may see us Brits as a nation of tea drinkers, our habits appear to be evolving.

We now drink around 95 million cups of coffee per day in the UK, according to the British Coffee Association, with 80% of people who visit coffee shops visiting more than once a week.

But our search for the perfect roast has left a bitter aftertaste in the shape of paper cup pollution. The Environmental Audit Committee predicts just one in 400 coffee cups are recycled, meaning our morning coffee is leaving behind far more than just a caffeine buzz.

Following high-profile media campaigns and an increasing public consciousness in issues such as recycling, sustainability and pollution, brands are starting to wake up and smell the… no, that’s too much of an easy one. The takeaway coffee cup, once the vision of the on-the-go millennial, is no longer on-trend.

With the threat of a government-imposed latte levy, brands are now rushing to provide an alternative. Discounted coffee in a reusable cup, improved separation and fully compostable cups could all provide workable solutions. But what if we could get rid of the mixed messages, consumer guilt and complicated collection systems once and for all?

Architect and designer Safia Qureshi thinks she knows how. She is the founder and CEO of Cupclub, a reusable packaging service for food and beverages. The idea is quite straight-forward. Customers are given a Cupclub cup when ordering a coffee, which has a tracking system using the same technology as an Oyster travel card within it.

They are then given up to three days to bring the cup back after use, where it will be collected, cleaned and reused, meaning no additional products in the waste stream. Signing up to the ‘club’ will be free for consumers, with the cost put on the retailers.

“The idea was born from the agency I ran, which focused on social innovation through design and architecture,” says Qureshi. “I was on a train one day and saw guys all throw their coffee cups into a bin, and at that moment I realised I could probably put a better product in their hands.

“I began to think of a more sustainable product with better packaging and thought instead of that bin, I could provide a service which would look at how we return things after we’ve used them as opposed to making something one time and throwing it away.”

The Cupclub products with built in Internet of Things technology

Cupclub will officially launch this month, yet Qureshi’s epiphany came way back in 2015. Given she was already running a successful creative design agency, why did it take so long for Cupclub to be born?

“In 2015, nobody knew that cups weren’t recyclable and people just didn’t realise we were moving into this circular space so fast. It was well before Blue Planet or any campaigns.

“Because it was so early, we wanted to wait for the right moment to actually expand and launch a business like this because market is everything. A lot of start-ups are too early and will fail because they came too soon and missed the wave. You can change a product and a team, but you have to obey the market.”

Positive backing

In that time, the concept has been on a journey of research and innovation. In 2016, it ran a nine-week pilot scheme at the Royal College of Art, which saw disposable cup use reduce by 40%.

The following year, Cupclub was awarded the prestigious Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize, which boosted its funding and profile.

The company currently resides at a stylish studio in Shoreditch, East London, owned by ad agency R/GA. Having supported and grown businesses such as Beats by Dre before it was sold to Apple, R/GA’s Venture Studio supports start-ups with investment, mentorship and business development and co-workspace. So much more than just a good idea.

The ‘powers that be’ clearly see the potential in this Internet of Things (IoT) service, but what’s to stop a consumer going out to buy a reusable cup, taking it home and then reusing it without the service?

“Buying a reusable cup is something that is a great user journey and great user behaviour and is a positive step, but it’s only 2% of consumers who do this. Most people do not want to have to own a cup, remember it and wash it. Grabbing a coffee isn’t something you necessarily plan.

“The biggest difference is that we’re not selling a product. You become a member, we know who you are, you’re part of the club! You can access any of our products at any location as long as you bring the product back. The only way a consumer is charged is if they lose one of our products.”

Qureshi likens the service to popular networks such as Uber or London’s Santander Cycles. She says: “We see it in the same way as owning your own bike, but getting a bike and renting it out when you need it to cycle across the city.

Not everyone needs to get a bike in order to get from A to B.” So, with that logic, not everyone needs to own a reusable cup to prevent single-use plastics polluting our cities, beaches and oceans.

Of course, the success of Cupclub when it launches this month will depend on building a comprehensive network. The collection ‘drop points’ will be fitted with weight sensors to notify when they’re full, with Cupclub only collecting full cases in order to keep fuel consumption down.

Members will be able to drop the product in any Cupclub participating retailer, leading the service to be suited for more densely populated areas such as large metropolitan cities or educational campuses.

Qureshi says: “It is a very metro city model because it’s a network. Any other businesses like Deliveroo or Uber will rely on density, urban environments and things that are likely to be close together. They are usually found in cities like Edinburgh, Glasgow and Birmingham.”

Reuse rather than recycle

There has never been a better time to push the environmental agenda, with government, big businesses and the media finally waking up to the damaging costs of fast-paced consumerism on our environment. For years we have heard that recycling will rid us of our sins, but Qureshi wants to push this message further.

She says: “Our message is that recycling is not going to save us. It should be something we should look at after we’ve looked at other ways in reducing consumerism. We shouldn’t rely on recycling because it sets up a really negative business model for us moving forward. It means that we will continue manufacturing single-use goods because we’ll recycle it, it’s not fixing a problem but perpetuating it.”

Chatting all things sustainability with Qureshi is like meeting up with a friend for a catch-up. She’s approachable, smiley and full of energy, a far cry from the beige suits and greying hair of many of the industry’s decision-makers.

For Qureshi, protecting the environment has always been important. “I grew up partly in the third world and spent some years living in Lahore. As early as four I used to convince everyone to fish plastic bags out of the nearby stream.”

From this early age, Qureshi’s strong moral compass and desire to leave a positive mark has continued to influence, and at sometimes dictate, her career. She says: “Our time here is very short and I want to do something to give a sense of purpose.

I wanted to at first evolve through the development of becoming an architect to understand how I implement this skillset into a grander vision. Now I understand infrastructure, I wanted to implement this at a grander scale. My ambition is to leave a legacy and leave change.”

Qureshi is just one example of a growing network of female leaders who are helping shake up the industry as it heads towards a circular economy. She says: “My biggest challenge is not that I’m a female but that we are doing something quite significant and we’re a start-up.”

As for the future, the next few months will be critical for Cupclub, as the brand keeps a close eye on consumer engagement. There are also high hopes for the network to spread not just into other cities, but other products too. For Qureshi, it’s proof that a few doodles in a notebook can go a long way.

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