An Environmentally Turbo Charged Cup
Wednesday, 7th March 2018 at 8:28 am
Rubber Cuppy co-founder Jessica Alice talks to Wendy Williams about having an impact on the environment from the first sip, in this month’s spotlight on social enterprise.
Every year in Australia, 1 billion single-use coffee cups and 48 million inner tubes end up in landfill.
But now a Melbourne duo has come up with a unique way to solve the problem – an “environmentally turbo charged” reusable coffee cup.
Adam Hough and Jessica Alice co-founded Rubber Cuppy in January 2017.
The cup is made from sustainable glassware and upcycled rubber inner tubes.
The aim is that from the moment you take your first sip you are already having an impact and helping the environment.
“We call it a cup that is environmentally turbo charged,” Alice says.
“So you don’t have to use it 18 times, it is from the first sip that you have already taken that rubber out of landfill and have also taken away a single use cup. So our footprint is really low in comparison to other brands, and for me [another difference] would be that we don’t leak.”
According to Alice the idea for Rubber Cuppy started when she failed to find a cup to suit her needs.
“Adam and I used to go to a little cafe and get take away coffee and we were definitely single use users and I said ‘this has to change’,” she tells Pro Bono News.
“So I went into a health food store with the agenda of buying two reusable coffee cups and I just looked at all of them and they weren’t going to suit what I needed. They were clunky or I knew they were going to break, but for me the plastics and the leakage were the two big problems.
“So I went back to Adam empty handed and I kind of described what the first Rubber Cuppy would look like. I just wanted like a glass jar with some kind of insulation.”
Within a few days Hough, a professional BMX athlete and bicycle mechanic, had created the first Rubber Cuppy.
“This is back in January , and we were going around using our cups, and people started to ask what they were and we didn’t really know what they were,” Alice says.
“Our housemates kept dropping in with friends and asking if Adam could make a few more and we started just organically selling amongst our friends, and then just over a table dinner party one night the name Rubber Cuppy was born.
“And then we were like ‘okay let’s just go out and if we get like 100 orders then maybe we’ll do something about it’. But we were both very busy, I was working full time in a cafe, Adam worked full time as a mechanic, so we just put one day aside, we hit the pavements and we got 170 orders.”
That was on the 31 May 2017.
According to Alice, who also runs food waste project Leftover Lovers and is an ambassador for reducing food waste and improving food security in Melbourne, it “hasn’t slowed down since”.
The pair, who are both interested in reducing waste, commute by bicycle and are regular coffee drinkers, signed up to a mentor program to learn how to turn their idea into a enterprise – albeit, when they first set out “Adam didn’t even know what a social enterprise was”.
“I was already going through a enterprise course with Macquarie Bank, which is called the SEFA program,” Alice explains.
“I was gearing up to launch my project, Leftover Lovers, so I had a bit of an understanding of what maybe the next steps could look like. And I was recommended to Social Traders on the backend of the Macquarie Bank program.
“They said I know you have finished SEFA but maybe you could go straight into Social Traders with Leftover Lovers, and I thought, I think it has got to go in with Rubber Cuppy, because this needs Social Traders like yesterday!”
One of the biggest challenges facing Rubber Cuppy when it started out was the supply of inner tubes.
“So as much as Adam would be happy to keep making them, we didn’t have the ongoing supply,” Alice says.
“But then we got in with Social Traders, and they introduced us to Australia Post. We had phenomenal mentors, we just connected from day one, and they set up the partnership for us which is now that we source all our inner tubes from the postie bikes with Australia Post.
“It just seemed like this natural progression, but it was definitely from being introduced to Social Traders and the mentor program that they had, that just so happened to have Australia Post staff involved.”
Alice says the cup is entirely “it’s own thing”.
“We didn’t want to reinvent a single use cup, we weren’t looking at a single use as our design, which we find that other companies do, we wanted something totally different,” she says.
“So I feel like it is quite unrefined, it is simple, and its own thing. No two are the same as Adam is cutting them by hand, it is coming off a different tube each time and they all have unique markings on them, from the inner tube.”
The real driver behind the social enterprise was having an environmental impact.
“We both ride our bikes and we thought we were doing a pretty good environmental job there. But then we realised that we’re punching through single use tubes all the time. Adam is a BMX rider and so he likes doing big stunts and we were thinking, this isn’t great like we’re throwing these away and their not going out. So I guess our environmental impact is all around landfill and getting stuff out of landfill,” she says.
The aim over the next 12 months is for Rubber Cuppy to take 2,200 kilograms of rubber out of landfill and save 5.5 million single-use cups from being used.
Alice says sustainability is at the heart of what they do.
“It kind of determines a lot of stuff for us,” she says.
“We see all the pre-existing materials that are around that are not being put to use and can be put to use and have a really high value.
“So I work with food waste, things that get thrown away, and I actually purchase the food waste and use it and that’s like a real statement to say ‘hey this is just lying around but it’s really, really important’. And similarly with the inner tubes, we see value in stuff that is just lying around in abundance going to waste.”
The next step for Hough and Alice is to go into manufacturing, which has been made possible thanks to a chance encounter with a Turkish delight factory.
“We are very industrious and we just put it out there that we were looking for manufacturing. This guy just came out, he had seen our post and said ‘Yeah I’ve got this Turkish delight factory. You know we do our own thing but we’ve got room’,” Alice says.
“So we turned up to this warehouse, and it has like white powder all over it, and we’re thinking what are we doing, we haven’t seen any Turkish delight at that point. And then we sit down and it just comes out with like platters of different varieties of Turkish delight, and we’re talking about how we can install and eating Turkish delight, with powdered sugar all over us.
“And they’re going to put up a production lines so we can start going the next step.”
But Alice says while they have been lucky in some respects and things have fallen into place, the journey has not been without its challenges.
“So when we put a product into the market, we had no idea what Rubber Cuppy was going to do. We hadn’t tested it outside of our own personal use. They came with no history as far as like a retailer picking them up and putting them on the shelf,” she says.
“And so our version one, they all split.
“We were using push bike tyres, and we were getting retailers saying ‘hey listen they’re sitting on the shelf and the skin has snapped off’. And we were not prepared for that.
“It would have really killed our business if we had to then replace all of the Rubber Cuppys that we had put out in the world. And it was a really big issue here at our little HQ. What are we going to do here? Like these are breaking.”
In response, Alice says they had to just own it.
“So the first thing we did is we got on the channels, on social media and stuff and we owned that. We said they do break down first, because they’re breaking right now. And so we offered to replace them all and then we got onto to using motorcycle inner tubes which is what Australia Post supply,” she says.
“But that was massive. We didn’t know if we would survive that. We just had to have a few disgruntled retailers that no longer thought that we knew what we were doing, or had lost their faith in us and we just could have been over.
“But we were really quick to look for the new material, put it out there that there was an issue and we were resolving it. It feels really far behind us now, but it still pinches me when I think about that. That was a really hard moment for Rubber Cuppy.”
She says if she was offering advice to another budding social entrepreneur, it would be to be transparent and honest, and knowing when to ask for help.
“We do lots of saying we just don’t know. We don’t know, but we’re going to find out,” Alice says.
“And as far as transparency goes, that is kind of intermingled for us because we’re not savvy salespeople. We’ve got a really simple product and a really simple story. But we’re also still just learning and we’re more than willing to ask for help when we don’t know something.
“And I think for anyone starting out, if you’re able to go into it and be ‘okay, it’s not polished but it’s getting there’, I think for us that was [what made it a success]. Probably a close second would just be that we kept turning out and we kept giving it a crack, and being persistent.”