We had a conversation with Michael McFarlane, from the Australian based company Huskee, about how they’re enabling the transition to a waste-free world. They use a unique biopolymer made from coffee husk as the basis of their elegantly designed cups, saucers, and lids. Since their founding, they have launched a reusable takeaway coffee cup replacement system, known as HuskeeSwap, AND an end of life collection program for damaged products, known as HuskeeLoop. Continue reading our first international feature to learn more about this inspiring and innovative company!

Huskee Cup: Waste Made Beautiful

For starters, could you briefly introduce yourself, the brand, what you sell, and how it all started?

Hi there this is Michael McFarlane, I’m the Huskee Swap Operations Manager at Huskee. Huskee is a reusable cup brand. We are both a product and a service. The product is Huskee Cups and the service is Huskee Swap, which is a cup exchange system. We actually started as a Kickstarter!

What is the guiding principle/philosophy behind the business?

The guiding principle or philosophy behind the business is to have a positive impact on the world through the reduction of waste in the coffee industry. So that starts with the materiality of the cup. We use up to 50 percent coffee husk when making the cups. Husk is a little bit of an issue for coffee farmers around the world. One of our main partners who we source husk from, had at one point in time, 150 tonnes of husk just rotting on their farm. So one of the ways we’re reducing waste is repurposing this raw waste [generated during the processing of coffee beans] into a new material. Secondly, by producing a reusable cup, it is an alternative to a single-use disposable cup. And then lastly, there is Huskee Swap, which as a cup exchange system, essentially makes using reusables more convenient — so people end up using more reusables and less single-use.

Husk generated during coffee processing

Between the cup itself repurposing coffee waste and HuskeeSwap replacing takeaway cups, it’s clear that closing the loop is key for Huskee. With this kind of innovative mindset and sustainability leadership, how are you collaborating with others to help them progress alongside you?

We have a lot of partnerships and collaborations. Our main partnerships are with cafes: whether they’re a stockist or a Huskee Swap site, we’re helping them reduce their dependence on single-use. We also work with universities, schools, councils, and corporates.

  1. Universities: We’re helping them reduce their waste on campus — whether that be through Huskee Swap or helping with the messaging of sustainability to students.
  2. Schools: We’ve had school prefects and student groups approach us because they wanted to reduce waste in their community. We’ve worked with them, by starting a Huskee Swap site within their school or by partnering with a local cafe. We’ve done that a few times.
  3. Councils: Councils have their own sustainability goals for their community and we’ve gone in there, had a chat with them, and spoken with local businesses; it’s kind of been a three-way partnership between us, the council and the individual businesses. We discuss what the goals are, what the challenges are, and how we can help them meet those goals.
  4. Corporates: Lots of corporates have internal cafes or breakout spaces where you’ll sometimes find ceramic, or sometimes you’ll find single-use, and they’re often looking at ways to improve their sustainability and reduce their carbon footprint. We can obviously help with that. They sometimes have concerns over their waste streams, since lots of single-use is going into their waste streams, and that actually being a costly thing for them to deal with. We can help them reduce their single-use and we can help them replace their ceramics with Huskee cups — which are far more durable and last a lot longer. Ceramics often find their way into the general waste bin; they’re often not recycled because they break ad hoc. So we work with them and help them reach their goals.

There’s quite a variety of people we work with; they all have their own needs, and their own goals, and we just try and find a bespoke solution for them.

What are the biggest sustainability challenges and opportunities your brand is facing (now or generally)?

I think there are a lot of challenges working in sustainability — mainly because there’s no silver bullet. Technology is still catching up, policy is still catching up. There’s confusing messaging, even reading packaging can be confusing! With Huskee Swap, one of the challenges is that it’s a relatively new idea. The idea of purchasing a cup and handing it in, or swapping it and getting another one out, not the same one that you purchased is novel. Of course, the idea of using something, washing it, and reusing it isn’t a new idea, but it is for a takeaway cup.

One of the opportunities, especially in this time, and the climate that we’re in with COVID-19, is that reusables are suffering from consumer confidence. People are worried about cross-contamination, and whether something is sufficiently clean. Well, the thing with Huskee Swap is, when cups are handed in they’re being commercially sanitised by the cafe. When you swap your cup in and get a fresh cup, that has been commercially sanitised. The difference between that and an individually owned reusable cup is that those individually owned cups are washed in a domestic setting, so they’re only cleaned, not sanitised. The difference there is sanitation means they’ve been washed at a minimum temperature for a minimum duration, to reduce bacteria and pathogens to a safe level. Now even if that is done in a domestic setting, it then needs to make its way to the cafe in your bag, or in your car — plenty of scope there for cross-contamination. So Huskee Swap is presenting itself right now as a far more sanitary way to use reusable.

The three available Huskee Cup sizes

Wherefrom is building a community of conscious consumers, what’s something you do, as an individual, to lead by example in the realm of sustainable consumption? Do you ever repurpose waste in your day-to-day?

Some of the things I do, I, of course, don’t use single-use cups, I have a Huskee Cup. I do Huskee Swap. I recycle. I don’t mean that in a kind of vague way; to be recycling correctly you need to be reading your packaging, making sure it is actually recyclable, and determining where you need to put it. Packaging is confusing, and it’s getting more and more confusing. I read it, and make sure it’s placed in the right recycling bin. When I go to the shops I have a spare bag that I use for soft plastics, which aren’t recyclable in domestic settings where I am, so I take that to a separate bin. I don’t own property, so I haven’t been able to invest fully in a sustainable home, but in previous rentals, I’ve composted, and I’ve even had a worm farm! Essentially, I’m just trying to reduce my waste and dispose of it sustainably.