Spilling The Beans on Running Responsible Cafes During Covid-19

By Jo Horsley, written for Clean Up Australia 

I have been running Responsible Cafes since 2017. In the middle of 2019 I was thinking of hanging up my ‘do gooder’ hat and letting the movement fizzle out. I had been volunteering my time in the organisation for a few years and was juggling a career and a family and I quite honestly, felt grounded down.

‘Volunteer fatigue’ had set in and I could see that we had done a good job at moving the needle with reuse and perhaps we were no longer needed… Maybe the discounted coffee model was not relevant anymore as the attitudes to reuse were becoming more ingrained in our coffee culture? Besides, organisations like Responsible Cafes, whose goal is to empower shifts in behavior should, by their very nature, become obsolete as the hoped for changes have been taken up by the community. Had we recruited enough ‘Keen Beans’ who proudly wore their reusable cup as a badge of honour, shaming the disposable cuppers into rethinking their behaviour? Maybe… 

And then the fires hit, leaving Australian communities and small businesses paralysed. Like the rest of the world watching on, it filled me with fear and anxiety. It made me think, we are in the midst of a climate crisis and we have 5000 registered small businesses who we could ignite to do more than just save coffee cup waste. Through our research with cafes we estimate that we have saved 174 millions cups from landfill (based on an average of 35.2 cups per day per registered cafe). Could we engage the community to reduce their carbon impact through savings on energy and food waste too? I engaged our committee and advisory group and started brewing an ambitious plan…  
Then Covid-19 hit, and within weeks the years of hard work to reduce single-use plastic and coffee cup waste unravelled in front of my very eyes. It felt as though the reusable coffee cup was being targeted as a symbol of how the fiendish invisible virus could spread on hard surfaces. Even after a group of 100 global scientists and health experts signed and published a statement to say that reusable cups could be used by employing basic hygiene measures, the reusable cup is still not welcome in many cafes. 
It also doesn’t help when there is lack of direction from the government – at the time of writing this article the QLD government is currently fining Responsible Cafes that are accepting reusable cups for even doing a contactless pour, due to their Covid Safe plan. We understand that the community is scared of transmission but must we turn our back on the war on waste? All these factors have left me feeling that our small grassroots organisation is now needed more than ever and our cafes need our help to build back a better system when they reopen for business.


So, we have invested hours of time, energy and research launching a new digital map and dashboard that better serves the community and drives more impact. Cafes can now add more information about what they are doing to save single-use plastic; how they are reducing food waste; their carbon footprint; managing their supply chain and giving back to the community. We have ditched the discount as the measure for joining and cafes can now update their profile with more information and be awarded a simple coffee bean rating for their actions. What is a coffee bean rating? Well, it’s a bit like chef’s hats, or stars (but more down to earth!).

Coffee lovers can visit our digital map and search for cafes based on their actions. For instance, a cafe with one coffee bean is taking a small action to reduce coffee cup waste through a cup library, compared to a gold coffee bean cafe that is doing everything from composting their food scraps, using renewable energy, charges a cup levy for a disposable cup (as opposed to discount) and to top it off they have a ‘Talky Table’ available for their community to sit at and make new friends.

We’ve been overwhelmed and overjoyed by the uptake from our ‘Keen Bean’ and cafes so far, it’s been inspiring to realise we were not alone in rising from the trenches, ready to roll up our sleeves, and continue the war on waste! We have created some brew-tiful new posters, leaflets and guides to help cafes make the transitions needed to get their Coffee Bean rating up, which are all available to download for free in their cafe dashboard. But now we need YOU – yes you latte lovers! We need your help to support these small businesses who are making these positive changes and are proud to be building a better way to operate and highlight the cafes that are all froth and no substance. Visit your local cafe and if they are not registered you can show them how – it is super easy, check out our resources page for more info. 

 To conclude, I think I will be wearing my Responsible Cafes hat for a few more years. Covid-19 has forced many people to review the direction of life and for now, mine will be making sure we make up for lost ground(s)! We have a HUGE fight on our hands. We need collaboration from organisations, government, businesses and the community so if you are interested in joining our movement then please get in touch. I would like this opportunity to give a latte thanks to our council partners who, without their financial support we could not make this ambitious project a reality. 

 Lastly, our 5 tips on what to do if your cafe is not accepting reusables: 

1.   Take 5 and drink in, if you can! 

2.   Ask if the barista can do a contactless pour. E.g pour the coffee directly into the cup (not possible in QLD now unfortunately). 

3.   If this is not possible, ask for the coffee in a drink-in cup. Then pour the coffee into your own reusable cup! (Not possible in QLD now unfortunately).

4.   Failing option 2 or 3, go topless – do away with the pesky plastic lid but be careful not to burn yourself or spill en route.

5.   Speak to your cafe about a cup swap system – espresso yourself! There are a few out there. Check out Huskee Cup for some inspiration! 

P.S Beware of compostable cups! Many of them need a commercial composting facility to break down… but don’t get me started, that is an entire other post altogether! Instead check out our new guide to compostable packaging here.