The problems with HuskeeCup – and what they teach us about ethical consumerism

Here in Australia we pride ourselves on our world-class coffee. The only problem is that pang of guilt every time we throw one of those plastic-lined disposable cups into the bin – adding up to about a billion of them every year. So whenever a business comes up with an innovative way to reduce café waste, we’re all interested. And the latest kid on the block is the sculptural, award-winning, re-usable HuskeeCup by startup company Huskee and the talented Sydney team Vert Design.

From their website:

HuskeeCup is a considered, design-driven response to a mature reusable coffee cup market. Visually iconic and functionally sophisticated, HuskeeCup’s materiality boasts a unique eco-composite polymer which features coffee husk as a raw material.

Unfortunately, many of HuskeeCup’s Unique Selling Points – the same ones that have won it celebrity endorsements and prestigious industry awards – don’t seem to stand up to scrutiny, as we will see. So as Huskee continues to expand internationally, we should ask: why has there been no critical examination of HuskeeCup? How do we, as ethical consumers, cope with the complexities involved in deciding which products to buy? And given that Huskee’s success shows that companies, cafés and coffee-sipping consumers all have a huge will to act environmentally, how do we make sure our positive energies are deployed in the most effective ways?


A closer look at HuskeeCup

Before we step back and look at these big (and often overwhelming) questions, let’s return to the café, and the sleek reusable cups for sale at the counter, and the type of decision we have to make many times each week: whether to buy something new. HuskeeCup’s pitch is positive and energetic, and rests heavily on its environmental credentials.

By purchasing HuskeeCup, you are helping to recycle hundreds of tonnes of waste material from the production of coffee.

This waste material is coffee husk, a by-product of the coffee bean extraction process which takes place in factories in China. The husk content gives the cup its name and is prominently advertised – to the point where at least one of the ethically-conscious cafes who stock HuskeeCups near where I live has been led to believe it’s made entirely of husks and is therefore compostable at the end of its life.

In fact, the cups’ primary ingredient is polypropylene, a common, recyclable plastic that is used to make things like your margarine tubs and tomato sauce bottle caps. According to Huskee’s FAQ page, polypropylene accounts for at least half of the cup material, and (according to other sources) as much as two thirds.

Huskee, therefore, has effectively taken two materials, biodegradable husks and recyclable plastic, and combined them into a new material that is neither compostable nor recyclable.

Huskee is less than transparent about this fact. In several places on their website they in fact claim outright that their product can be recycled, before conceding it is not. They then claim to be taking care of the recycling themselves (presumably by simply re-distributing old cups for reuse), but elsewhere admit this process is still ‘in development’ and will ‘make HuskeeSwap the ultimate closed-loop ecosystem’ – a phrase that only makes sense if their cups never die. Unfortunately, their expected lifespan is about three years.

So if the composite material is less environmentally friendly than the starting products, what could the incentive have been for Huskee to make it in the first place? It seems the only people who could benefit from it are the coffee bean producers, who would otherwise have to find alternative disposal methods for mounds of husks. The core Huskee team does in fact include a director of Yunnan Coffee Traders, which runs farming and milling operations in China.

A closer look at HuskeeSwap

The cups themselves are, however, only part of the story. The HuskeeSwap program allows customers to drop off an empty Huskee cup at a participating cafe and pick up an identical cup full of coffee. Irrespective of the cup material, this certainly has the potential to reduce the amount of times people use disposable cups.

How much plastic-contaminated landfill might be displaced by this scheme? Given the weight of HuskeeCup, you’d have to use a large one (350 mL, with lid but no saucer) 16 times before you prevent the same weight in disposable cups going to landfill. But the average disposable cup is mostly paper, so for an overall reduction in plastic use, you’d have to use your small HuskeeCup a 44 times, or your large one a whopping 61 (and more if you also purchased the saucer). And until Huskee or participating cafes decide to track cup turnover, we have no way to know whether, on average, this is being achieved.

This point is important, so it’s worth reiterating: we have no way of knowing whether HuskeeCup will have actually made the problem we have paid it to address worse.

In essence, Huskee is providing an answer to the wrong question. They want us to ask, “What new product can I buy instead of using disposable cups?” But a better question might be, “Is manufacturing new products – especially millions each year destined for landfill after a few years’ use – really the best way to tackle our waste problem?”

Some cafés in my home town have already shown there are alternative approaches. For a few years now, Merewether Mugs has been providing a stock of second-hand ceramic coffee cups to a few beachside cafés, which customers can grab if they forget a reusable one from home; afterwards they get washed by the café. They may lack the pleasing Japan-influenced aesthetics of the HuskeeCup – but they sidestep the emissions involved in manufacturing and transporting a new, unrecyclable product. And it’s free.

Asking the right questions

When I point out Huskee’s contradictions to friends, the question I’m often asked is, “So how do I work out which product I should actually purchase?” The belief is that if we just know which website to visit, or which information leaflet to pin to the fridge, then we will know which plastic types are ‘bad’ or ‘good’, or which companies we can trust to be ethical, or which companies respect their workers’ rights – and then we can make the perfect choice.

It’s no accident that we do think it’s our job as individuals to make ethical purchasing decisions. This goes right back to the first days of disposable food packaging in the 1950s, where the Keep America Beautiful anti-littering campaign was a highly effective marketing tactic funded by a cohort of food companies and plastics manufacturers including Coca-Cola, Pepsi, McDonalds, Nestle, Dow Chemical and Mobil (itself one of the top 20 firms responsible for a third of all carbon emissions since 1965). The idea was to shift the blame from themselves onto individual citizens, and they were so successful in this that they wrong-footed governments into abandoning proposed or established bans on disposable packaging, allowing the companies to profit from the manufacture of litter while demonising the ‘litterbugs’ (a term coined by their marketeers) for despoiling the landscape.

This idea of end-user responsibility has now become so ingrained that even luminaries like conservationist Jane Goodall are exhorting us to exhaustively research all our purchases before we make them. She says, “People should think about the consequences of the little choices they make each day. What do you buy? Where did it come from? Where was it made? Did it harm the environment? Did it lead to cruelty to animals? Was it cheap because of child slave labour?”

But is this really achievable? And what would it look like in practice?

What’s involved in evaluating HuskeeCup?

As we’ve seen, even having spare time and energy for research are insufficient to work out if HuskeeCup makes a net positive impact. Without independent research to track the turnover and usage of their cups, no-one will be able to say for sure whether HuskeeCup is causing a reduction in plastic waste.

The environmental benefits are only the first of Huskee’s main claims. Without an engineering degree, I would not been able to tell that their second claim about thermodynamics is highly doubtful. (In brief, it’s impossible for the fins to both keep your hands cool and coffee hot at the same time.) And regarding HuskeeCup’s health credentials, the company both appeals to authority (saying the cup materials are FDA approved, while admitting the final product has not been tested or certified yet) and rejects it (telling us it contains no scary BPA – although this material is also FDA approved) meaning the consumer is expected to know better than government regulatory bodies. You’d also have to be on top of the latest science to know whether it is indeed safe to microwave or even drink hot beverages from, although at least some experts think not.

That’s an impossible amount of time and expertise to expect from a consumer, especially one standing in a shop comparing products. Fans of TV show The Good Place might be reminded of the lifestyle of Doug Forcett, a character who goes to extremes attempting to carry out every action in the most ethical way possible. (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t lead to a good life – or afterlife.)

Unfortunately, I’m also yet to find a place where Huskee’s claims have been critically examined, even by journalists profiling Huskee for major newspapers or by the design industry which has cited Huskee’s claims as the reasons for giving it prestigious awards. If even these professionals can miss things, what hope do we have as individuals?

Things can be different

Imagine what it would feel like to live without having to worry about eco-guilt every time we made a purchase. This would be a world where we could be well-informed about the impact of products we purchase – perhaps, for example, HuskeeCup packaging would feature mandatory, clear information telling us how many times we’d have to use it instead of a disposable cup before we’d see a net reduction of carbon emissions or plastic waste. And ideally we wouldn’t have to research things at all, knowing that the ongoing environmental crises are so important that products with the worst impacts have been banned or disincentivised.

Does this sound impossible? It’s not, because we take this kind of system for granted in other parts of our life, like food and health safety, where regulation and central, transparent oversight keep us safe. Sometimes these systems are imperfect, but no one would ever suggest that a patient who was a victim of defective hip replacements was to blame for their lack of research into the company that covered up their dangers, and it makes international news when companies are caught trying to introduce potentially harmful substances into the food chain for profit. So why should we accept lesser standards for products that contribute to our environmental crises?

The good news is that we know there are enough energised people out there to make real change. HuskeeCup, after all, was funded by a highly successful KickStarter campaign, where over a thousand members of the public pledged $113,508 to support its manufacture. That’s a lot of people who have invested time and money to try and make a difference – including the Huskee and Vert Design teams themselves. And it means that we have both the energy and the means to do real good – we just need to find the most effective place to direct them.

Ultimately, the best fight is for the type of future where some of these burdens of ethical decision-making are lifted from the shoulders of consumers, and the problems of waste are tackled at the source. Only then will we be free to enjoy a truly relaxing flat white.




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