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Materials

It’s not a world without plastic. It’s a world without plastic waste

Rebecca Prince-Ruiz, Plastic Free July Founder

Behaviour change not material change

The rising awareness of the problematic impacts of unnecessary single-use plastic has energised us to change our habits, which is fantastic. But plastic is a symptom of a system in crisis, not the cause.  Plastic, designed for longevity and made well, is part of the solution, replacing single-use and driving reuse.

The problem is the volume, all this “stuff” – too much, used too little. We cannot purchase our way to a sustainable future.

The answer is not to swap from a standard single-use cup to a compostable one, nor is it to use a reusable made with bamboo instead of plastic. The best reusable cup is the one you use.

Reduce, reuse, recycle. This common catch-cry captures our collective imagination and signposts the importance of reduction and reuse.

However, what really happens is a completely different story. 40% of all plastic is used just once before being discarded. Plastic may only be recycled once or twice before it is downcycled into a product of lesser value, which makes it even more critical to think through all use cases.

And only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled.

When we talk about circular economy, it's about designing products and services to reverse the reality of our linear/landfill based global economy.  It's not about recycling it's about designing out waste from products and services through, reduction, reuse and repair. 

KeepCup materials

We carefully consider all material options and have made conscious decisions about what to use, and how. We’ve put together a guide on why we’ve chosen to use the materials that make up our KeepCup ranges, and the alternatives we considered along the way.

For more detailed material, parts, usage and care information, click the range below: 

Plastic

We use plastic in our lids and in our KeepCup Original cup bases. It’s heat resistant, lightweight and durable, appropriate for quick service environments. Plastic has low embodied energy in manufacture, and exact tolerances, which reduces waste on the factory floor. It’s also light and stackable, which reduces the environmental cost of freight. 

When we designed KeepCup in 2008, we believed recycling was a viable solution. We now know that only 9% of all plastic ever made has been recycled and that plastic can only be recycled 4-5 times. Plastic has a place in reuse as because, when used responsibly in high quality products, it facilitates the overall reduction in plastic waste when reused again and again. 

To comply with most worldwide food safety and health regulations, including migration of chemical compounds in use, new plastic is required to be used in products for repeat use with food and beverages.  

We independently test all plastic components annually to ensure they are free from BPA, BPS, phthalates including DEHP, lead and cadmium. 

For more about recycled plastic material use, see alternate materials below. 

For more KeepCup Original materials and care information >

Glass

We use tempered soda lime glass in our KeepCup Brew and KeepCup Brew Cork ranges because it is durable, shock resistant, dishwasher safe and can withstand high temperatures.

Our glass cups are manufactured in a machine blow molding line. Please note, hand blown glass products are not possible or desirable in mass production, this a method reserved for artisan products.

They are toughened by tempering, a process of extreme heating and rapid cooling to anneal the surface the glass. The glass remains breakable but is much more resistant to thermal shock and mechanical shock. When tempered glass breaks it beads, making it less likely to cause injury.

Tempered glass can be recycled, but it must be heated to higher temperatures than normal glass jars and bottles. Again, while glass can be recycled, due to volume it is often crushed and used as landfill. As breakage is the only reason for glass tumblers to be discarded, and broken glass cannot be recycled, we choose to use tempered glass for durability.

We independently test our glass annually to ensure it is tempered to standard, as well as lead and cadmium free.

For more KeepCup Brew materials and care information >

Cork

Natural, renewable and biodegradable, cork is a highly sustainable material as it’s harvested from living trees.

Our KeepCup Brew Cork bands are upcycled from the waste by-product of wine cork production in Portugal. The bands are water resistant, antibacterial and heat resistant.

The cork is granulated, then compression-moulded with a very small amount of vegan food grade polyurethane bonding agent - just enough to hold it together while retaining the look and feel of natural cork. The cork can be buried or biodegraded in household compost at end of life.

For more KeepCup Brew materials and care information >

Wood

A natural sustainable material, wood is renewable, recyclable and biodegradable.

Our wood bands are upcycled from the waste by-product of timber industry in Portugal. Recovered bark and wood offcuts are granulated, then compression-moulded with a small amount of vegan food grade polyurethane bonding agent - just enough to hold it together while retaining the dark earthy complexion of wood.

Your wood band will change over time with use, and we encourage you to view this as a natural patina to the product.

For more KeepCup Brew materials and care information >

Stainless steel

Stainless steel is known for its durability, reuse longevity and is a 100% recyclable resource without degradation. With a vacuum seal and thermal insulation, it is safe and comfortable to hold both hot and cold beverages, with lasting drinking pleasure.

In our KeepCup Thermal range, we use grade 18/8 (also referred to as type 304) which is the most common stainless steel used with food preparation and dining, and is well known for its antibacterial and hygienic properties. The "grade" of stainless steel refers to the amount of chromium and nickel found within it, the percentage of which is used to designate and determine the material best fit for purpose.

Electropolishing creates a microscopically smooth, mirror-like surface (compared to polished) providing extra protection from corrosion, metallic taint and reduced opportunity for bacterial growth, removing the need for an interior ceramic coating or lining. Stainless steel can be recycled with household collection. Mixing scrap metal with raw materials is standard practice in steel production due to the material’s long life, high value and high demand.

Globally, steel contains an average of 25% recycled content. Thermal KeepCups are made using 35% recycled stainless steel content.

For more KeepCup Thermal materials and care information >

Silicone

We use silicone as an insulating barrier on our KeepCup Original and KeepCup Brew ranges; it is durable with great non-slip and thermal resistant qualities, and is BPS and BPA free.

The base material of silicone is sand, which sounds romantic, however, silicone is a synthetic elastomer (soft plastic) and is made up of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and silicon (the sand bit). The silicone-making process involves extracting silicon from silica, passing it through hydrocarbons (fossil fuels) then mixing with other chemicals to create silicone elastomer.

Silicone cannot be recycled in domestic recycling, it requires a dedicated commercial collection. Where a commercial recycling closed loop exists, silicone can be desiccated and downcycled.

For more KeepCup Original materials and care information >

For more KeepCup Brew materials and care information >

Alternate Materials

We often get asked about alternative materials that are commonly used. We carefully consider all material options and have made conscious decisions about what to use, and how. For example plastic is the best material to enable our lids to seal and to do so for extended use over multiple years.

Polycoated paperboard

Is this paper or plastic? 

If you use single-use coffee cups you’re drinking out of plastic. Most disposable cups have a plastic (polyethylene) lining - the same material as a plastic bag. This means they are rarely recyclable in standard recycling streams. A year of coffee-drinking in single-use cups contributes 1.2kg of plastic to landfill. 

Like single-use coffee cups, most packaging that looks like paper but contains liquids, frozen, warm or oily substances, is not just paper.  It’s usually polymer-coated paperboard (also known as polycoated paperboard or PCPB), which is paper with a thin coating of plastic, normally polyethylene (PE) or polylactic acid (PLA). Poly-coated paperboard is difficult to recycle and contaminates recycling streams because it is neither paper nor plastic.

Plastic with additives

We make all our products so they can be disassembled and, in theory, recycled at the end of life. 
Products that mix plastic with plant fibre, like rice or coffee husks, are reducing plastic volume, but they cannot be recovered for recycling at end of life, nor are they biodegradable.

While some tout these plant fibres as waste, they are valuable compost. To preserve the water and nutrients within organic waste matter, for soil quality, natural fertilizer and to decarbonise the atmosphere, the focus for all organic waste materials must be composting, not locking materials into a product that doesn’t biodegrade.

Bamboo

We have not pursued bamboo fibre due to the materials that bond it, its lifespan and limited end of life options.

Bamboo is an excellent fast-growing material. It can grow well without pesticides and fertilisers (although often these are still added to commercial crops) and regenerates from its own roots so doesn’t need to be replanted. However, bamboo processing is highly chemically intensive, and its best use is not as a plastic substitute.

When used for waterproof, food-safe vessels, it is most commonly bonded with melamine (plastic). The bonding agent is 20-60% of the end product. A 2019 German study found high levels of chemical leeching from melamine bamboo cups into hot drinks, leading to calls for them to be banned.

Recycled plastic

Efficient manufacturing or recycling? 

We are often asked why we don’t use recycled plastic. When claiming to use ‘recycled plastic’ in food and beverage packaging, many companies are referring to manufacturing waste, instead of post-consumer waste which is derived from product that has completed its lifecycle as a consumer item.

In our view, reusing manufacturing waste is not recycling. We call that efficient manufacturing - utilising factory waste by feeding it back into production or sending it out to a reprocessor for pelletising. All KeepCup manufacturers do it. It makes financial and environmental sense, but is not common practice because the raw materials are so cheap.

Post-consumer recycled plastic

Post-consumer waste is a different story. Post-consumer waste is waste produced after a product has served its intended purpose.

For post-consumer recycled plastic to be repeat use food safe, full material traceability is essential to ensure the safety of the plastics being used. Contamination could change known thermal and chemical properties of the material – a danger, especially when filling with hot drinks or microwaving.

Infrastructure and cost effectiveness are currently key barriers to collecting post-consumer plastics for recycling into repeat-use food safe products. It’s expensive and infrastructure-intensive to collect, sort, clean and reprocess plastic waste on a large enough scale to fulfil demand and ensure the material is consistent enough across production batches to avoid damaging the tooling used in manufacture. There are so many other uses for post-consumer recycled plastic where food safety is not required. This is less costly and less risky.

Additionally, unlike metal and glass, plastic can’t be recycled infinitely. The polymers in plastic break down and lose strength each time they’re reprocessed, so much ‘recycled plastic’ also contains virgin material to maintain strength. Most plastic can only be recycled once or twice before having to be downcycled into a product of lesser value and which is unlikely to be recycled again.

Similarly, recovered ocean plastic has limited use at scale in manufacturing food contact plastic due to traceability and contaminants.

Biodegradable plastic and bioplastic

Biodegradable and bioplastics are not the same thing.

Biodegradable plastic

Biodegradable plastics are those that, in specific conditions, can be decomposed completely by living organisms within a reasonable timeframe, without harming the environment.

Biodegradable plastics must have the right conditions to biodegrade. In landfill or littered they will not biodegrade and instead pose similar risks to traditional plastics. Those that find their way into the ocean or other natural environments gradually splinter into microplastics, polluting ecosystems and making their way into the food chain.

The majority of biodegradable plastics currently available are compostable plastics. Compostable plastics are those that completely break down within a specified time frame (12 weeks according to European standards) in the right composting conditions. Most require industrial composting facilities of 60°C or higher, of which availability is limited the world over.

Neither the terms biodegradable nor compostable imply anything about the material’s ability to break down quickly in a natural environment.

Isabel Thomlinson, The Conversation

Most compostable plastics end up in landfill where, instead of turning into compost, they release methane, a greenhouse gas approximately 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Our peer reviewed Life Cycle Analysis showed that across their life cycle, compostable cups have worse carbon emissions than other single-use cups.

Bioplastic

Bioplastics are plastics made from plants, or other biological materials, rather than crude oil. Not all bioplastics are biodegradable.

The two main types of bioplastics are PLA (polylactic acid), usually made from corn starch, cassava or sugar cane, and PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate) made by microorganisms which are sometimes genetically engineered.

Polymer chains for PET plastic - commonly used to make single-use water bottles - can now be synthesised using renewable sources like sugar cane or wood. However, the resulting non-biodegradable bioplastic is chemically identical to the fossil counterpart, behaving in the environment just like conventional plastic, persisting for a long time and with limited recovery pathway for recycling.

PLA is technically recyclable, compostable and biodegradable however requires specialised systems to be processed, and these are rarely available for consumers. PLA is often indistinguishable from other plastics and compromises standard recycling streams.

The best reusable is the one you use

We can’t purchase our way to a sustainable planet, a concept at odds with a global system that presupposes infinite growth. The material a product is made from is significantly less important compared to how many times you reuse and how many you own.

The best reusable cup is the one you already own.
The best reusable cup is the one you use.

We have designed KeepCups to be products that you make part of your daily routine because you love the colour, the shape, the way your coffee tastes – and reduced impact is an outcome of a product you love to use. Made to be loved and looked after.

The best reusable is the one you use

We can’t purchase our way to a sustainable planet, a concept at odds with a global system that presupposes infinite growth. The material a product is made from is significantly less important compared to how many times you reuse and how many you own.

The best reusable cup is the one you already own.
The best reusable cup is the one you use.

We have designed KeepCups to be products that you make part of your daily routine because you love the colour, the shape, the way your coffee tastes – and reduced impact is an outcome of a product you love to use. Made to be loved and looked after.

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