Ellen MacArthur Foundation Circular Design Challenge winners

Cup Club returnable cup aspires to be the ‘city bike rental’ equivalent of the coffee scene

By Jenny Eagle

- Last updated on GMT

Cup Club reusable coffee cup subscription service. Photo: Cup Club.
Cup Club reusable coffee cup subscription service. Photo: Cup Club.
Cup Club returnable cup and TrioCup, a one-piece cup that eliminates the need for plastic lids, have been recognized by The Ellen MacArthur Foundation in its Circular Design Challenge awards.

Cup Club, based in the UK, is a reusable cup subscription service, where reusable cups can be dropped off at any participating store. It is being launched in London this month then will roll out to cities worldwide and then develop its technology to make all food packaging reusable. 

Reuse schemes don't work

Safia Qureshi

Safia Qureshi, founder/CEO, Cup Club, said for most people, reusable cups are an intuitive way to eliminate the waste from the single-use containers we spread around us every day.

Over 40 billion single-use cups are wasted in the US and Europe alone every year. But there is an elephant in the room: keep cups and reuse schemes for coffee generally don't work. This is the problem Cup Club is devoted to solve​,” she said.

The business model – to sell the reuse service to multiple stakeholders – means that the system can scale and does not rely on brand loyalty. Once proven, it can be rolled out across other service types where packaging waste is a big issue, for example food boxes and drinks bottles​.”

The way Cup Club works is through RFID tagging, mobile interface, and the Internet of Things to track individual cups and reward their users for being in the system.

The Circular Design Challenge (CDC) winners were honored at the Our Oceans Conference in Malta, in October last year.

Cup Club is one of 5 CDC winners including Evoware seaweed-based packaging, Delta edible or water soluble sachet and TrioCup, who will split the $1m prize between them. 

We have combined a product, service and business model that together enable multiple retailers and brands to transition to a returnable packaging system infrastructure at a city scale. We have what it takes to be the city bike rental equivalent of the coffee scene​,” added Qureshi.

New Plastic Economy Accelerator Programme

All the winners will now form part of a 12-month New Plastic Economy Accelerator Programme, where they are given expert support to make their innovations marketable. When one year has passed, the Foundation will award an additional $1m prize to the best contestant.

In a statement, Dame Ellen MacArthur said she hopes ‘these innovations will inspire even more progress, helping to build a system in which all plastic materials are reused, recycled or safely composted’.

The TrioCup from the US is a disposable paper cup made with an origami-like technique that removes the need for a plastic lid. The team has chosen a 100% compostable material and is working on an alternative that is also 100% recyclable. 

Tom Chan, co-founder, TrioCup, said the ‘to-go’ culture has long been a part of modern life. Sadly, it produces a lot of waste, including polystyrene coffee cup lids that cannot be recycled. 

Tom Chan

TrioCup has the potential to design out the need for hundreds of thousands of tonnes of polystyrene that would otherwise be landfilled or leaked into the environment, while at the same time making life easier for coffee lovers​,” he said.

While paper cups are still not widely recycled, work is ongoing to create a recycling pathway for the cup. Preparing for all possibilities, the cup’s liner is made from a material that also makes the cup industrially compostable​.” 

Chan added the folding scheme of TrioCup is quick to do and offers excellent spill resistance. The mugs stack well, and while space efficiency is a bit lower than with standard cups, this is offset by not needing any lids.

Initially I was a big fan of Japanese bottled beverages, yet I always thought throwing the used bottles into the trash was too wasteful. I wanted to create a more environmentally friendly beverage container and decided to do so for the more popular and less reusable container: the paper coffee cup and lid​,” he said.

Upon starting this endeavor, I realised there were already patented all-paper cups that were not successful in the marketplace. Because of this, my team and I expanded the cup’s purpose to encompass more than just waste-reduction​.

The New Plastics Economy Accelerator Programme is the perfect partner for us, as it brings together extensive information to guide our efforts from the Evidence Base and a widespread network from the Dialogue Mechanism​.


It would allow us to collaborate with packaging manufacturers, businesses involved in plastic collection and reprocessing, and global consumer goods companies. The programme will allow us to learn how to develop a regenerative business from the TrioCup, as well as how to scale up our manufacturing in a cost effective manner to break into the market​.” 

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched the two challenges last year; the Circular Design Challenge (winners announced in Malta) focuses on "How can we get products to people without generating plastic waste?" and the Circular Materials Challenge (winners announced at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week) focuses on "How to make all plastic packaging recyclable?"

Circular Design Challenge winners:

  • MIWA; Delivering groceries without single-use packaging and cutting household plastic waste.
  • Algramo; Access the right amount of product without the need for non-recyclable single-use sachets.
  • Evoware; Seaweed-based packaging that replaces billions of small bits of plastics with a nutrient boost.
  • Delta; An edible or water soluble sachet solution for restaurants and other hospitality businesses.
  • CupClub; A returnable cup ecosystem to replace the 100 billion single-use cups and lids used every year.

Circular Materials Challenge winners;

  • University of Pittsburgh; Recyclable, flexible and durable packaging created through nano-engineering.
  • Aronax Technologies Spain; A recyclable, magnetic coating that replaces multi-layered packaging.
  • Full Cycle Bioplastics; Packaging made from wood and plant waste, which can be fed to bacteria and turned into new plastic again.
  • VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland; Packaging that looks and feels like plastic, but is made from wood.
  • Fraunhofer Institute for Silicate Research; An organic coating for plastic that makes fresh food packaging compostable.

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