On a visit to Melbourne, a Times reporter got a lesson in cafe etiquette, and the challenges facing the sustainability movement.
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MELBOURNE, Australia — The sour tone of voice from the barista could have curdled milk.
“Don’t you have a KeepCup?” he asked me.
It was a busy morning in 2018. I had just ordered a flat white to go at a cafe in this city, the center of Australia’s renowned coffee culture, and somehow I had messed up. I looked around, confused, until I saw that everyone in line had a reusable cup, most of them sized to fit under the espresso spout. KeepCup, I discovered, was both a brand name and a term of art. It was simply how Australians drank coffee.
Other coffee companies around the world, including Starbucks, now want customers to do the same.
As part of a plan to cut waste in half this decade, the company announced in March that it wants to create a “cultural movement” by 2025, with coffee drinkers ditching paper. The Starbucks news release talked about the company’s commitment to innovation, and it has ambitious plans for a returnable cup program that will work with drive-throughs and mobile ordering.
But in Australia, where family-owned cafes are still the norm, the culture changed a while ago. KeepCup has been around since 2009. By 2019, the company’s cups were ubiquitous.
And yet, for both Australia’s small cafes and Starbucks, the challenges facing such a movement have grown.
The global pandemic has heightened concerns about hygiene and sown confusion about best practices. When I went back to Melbourne recently, Linda Jones, who owns two Mediterranean-style cafes in the city, both called Alimentari, told me that health officials had warned against reusable cups in 2020. As a result, people aren’t sure what is allowed or entirely safe. At her cafes and many others, paper cups are stacked up once again beside the dark roast blends.
“Fear is a crazy thing,” Jones said, over a perfect flat white at one of her coffee shops. “Rather than stop and put a lot of thought into it, you just scrap it all.”
At KeepCup headquarters, in a former furniture warehouse a few blocks away, it’s much the same story. Abigail Forsyth, who founded the company with her brother after nearly a decade of running local cafes, said the pandemic had slashed sales by 80 percent.
“It was like we just fell off a cliff,” she said.
But perhaps revival will be easier than creating change the first time around? In Melbourne, a few more people seem to dust off their reusable cups every day. Around 20 or 30 percent of takeaway customers now show up with them at Jones’s cafes.
That’s thanks in part to people like Sam Power, who stopped at the Alimentari near the city’s Carlton Gardens one recent day during a break from his job as an arborist. Holding a shiny silver mug with a handle, he said he had been pushing friends and cafe owners around the city to get back to reusable cups.
“I think it’s laziness half the time,” he said. “Sure, sometimes you might forget it. My partner forgot his cup today. But mostly the problem is business laziness.”
Forsyth agreed, and pointed straight at the branded paper cups of Starbucks. For years, she said, she had been in touch with the company, encouraging executives to embrace boldness.
“What I’ve always said to them is ‘be the first mover,’” she said. “People will high five you for it.” In late 2019, a team from Starbucks’ sustainability group even came to Melbourne for an exploratory tour. “Then they disappeared and we never saw them again,” she said.
I asked Starbucks what the company had learned in Australia. A spokeswoman said it was one of several trips made worldwide to examine customer behavior.
But if there is a lesson or two that Australia may hold, for Seattle’s giant and for coffee fans everywhere, it might be found in the friendly, shameful experience I recalled above. In that case, both baristas and customers signaled with a smile and scorn that I was an outlier who would benefit from joining the club of responsible coffee lovers.
KeepCup’s first innovation, according to cafe owners, was size: creating cups that matched the usual orders and fit under espresso spouts. But both baristas and customers joined forces to support the shift because the cups were not just easy to use, they were also better, cooler, more personal — more enjoyable for me, and a fashionable wink to like-minded friends and strangers. While many reusable cups still contain plastic, they do divert single-use cups from landfills.
“We make decisions emotionally for a whole lot of reasons we don’t understand, and sustainability is a supportive point, not always a driver,” Forsyth told me. “You have to love using it, you have to enjoy the tactility.”
“There’s vanity in that,” she added. “But it’s powerful.”
Australians to vote May 21: Prime Minister Scott Morrison called a general election over the weekend. According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, climate change is one of the top voter concerns.
Wetter hurricanes: Climate change contributed significantly to the severity of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, increasing both rainfall rates and rainfall totals.
Arctic permafrost: Donors have pledged $41 million to monitor thawing ground. The project aims to fill in gaps in knowledge about planet-warming emissions.
Air pollution: Increasingly bad air in big cities in the tropics could take a huge toll in coming years.
Solar power: Some warehouse owners are taking steps to make their buildings more energy efficient, including turning the rooftops into solar farms.
Gas prices: The Biden administration plans to suspend a ban on less-expensive gasoline blends that can contribute to smog.
Out-of-date flood rules: As the climate changes, regulations need reform to protect communities on the front lines, Elizabeth Rush writes in a guest essay.
A lake in Florida has become a plaintiff in state court. According to The New Yorker, it’s the first time an inanimate slice of nature has tried to defend its rights in a U.S. courtroom.
From The Korea Herald: In a policy shift, the incoming government of South Korea said “nuclear is back on the table” as a way to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
A start-up in Bolivia is making tiny, affordable electric cars aimed at Latin America’s huge market, Rest of World reported, and the country’s vast reserves of lithium could help.
The E.P.A. will investigate whether Louisiana violated the Civil Rights Act by failing to control air pollution in communities of color, E&E News reported.
Bloomberg wrote about a new investment fund that aims to raise billions of dollars to scale up carbon removal technology.
Climate activists deflated the tires on dozens of SUVs in Edinburgh, according to the BBC.
As sea levels rise, eroding embankments along the Bay of Bengal and pushing water closer to homes, women in India have banded together to take action: They’re planting hundreds of thousands of additional mangrove trees to serve as protective barriers. “The rhythm of our lives is dependent on the ebb and flow of the water around us, making the mangroves our lifelines,” one of the women said. You can read their story here.
Thanks for reading. We’ll be back on Friday.
Manuela Andreoni, Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.
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No reusable cup? In Australia, it's at your own risk. – The New York Times