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How Sustainable Are Sustainable Coffee Cups?

Pilot programs in northern California cities are designed to test the unique material, technical, and operational changes necessary to facilitate a seamless and convenient transition to reusable cups for customers and companies.

As NextGen Consortium begins to roll out its sustainability initiatives to address single-use food packaging waste, Closed Loop Partners announced the launch of reusable cup pilot programs in local cafes in San Francisco and Palo Alto, CA. NextGen Consortium is managed by Closed Loop Partners, with Starbucks and McDonald’s, founding partners, both participating in the pilot program.

Two of the 12 NextGen Cup Challenge winners, CupClub and Muuse, will pilot their respective “smart” reusable cup systems in open environments across clusters of local cafés on a rolling basis over the coming weeks. These pilot programs allow companies the opportunity to further test, learn, and innovate according to the unique material, technical, and operational changes necessary to facilitate a seamless and convenient transition to reusable cups for customers and companies.

The size and complexity of the pilots, along with the customer feedback and data captured during the testing, will provide valuable insights into each cup’s technical feasibility, business viability, user desirability, and circular resiliency. Alongside participating cafés, the city of Palo Alto will be hosting cup drop-off points in a number of civic buildings downtown and San Francisco has helped to facilitate connections with local businesses, according to Closed Loop Partners.

Sounds good so far, so what could possibly be wrong with this plan? Closed Loop Partners gives us the first clue. “Scaling the next-generation cup won’t happen overnight; the cup system is complex and calls for multiple layers of testing,” noted the press release. The cups will need to be easy for baristas and customers to handle with ease and align with diverse waste recovery systems after use.”

Additionally, reusable cup systems will need to be cost-competitive, integrate smoothly across diverse operations and technology platforms, minimize operational disruption, and have a positive impact on the environment and meet the convenience and performance standards customers know and trust in order to scale, explained Closed Loop Partners.

What the press release doesn’t disclose is the materials that will be used for these reusable cups. It mentions two other Cup Challenge winners—Footprint LLC and PTT MCC Biochem Co. Ltd.—involved in the pilot program for single-use cups that will “pioneer alternative materials for cups and cup liners that are recyclable and/or compostable,” said Closed Loop. “These ensure that the valuable materials in cups are kept in circulation and out of landfills and the natural environment.”

It would appear that there is a lot of time and money being spent re-inventing a wheel that possibly does not need reinventing. Developing a material that can be “reused” is not the big problem. There are already many materials suitable for cups that can be reused—glass, ceramic, polymers of various types, and metals of various types.

The greater complexity will come with collecting the reusable cups from people buying products at participating cafés: Coupa Café’s two stores in Palo Alto and two in Stanford, CA, and Verve Coffee Roasters in Palo Alto. Drop points have been established in Palo Alto at Café Venetia (drop point only); Palo Alto City Hall (drop point only); and Coupa Café in Stanford, CA, (drop point only). Reusable cup pilots in San Francisco will be conducted by Muuse and include four cafés in that city: Anytown Coffee Roasters, Ritual Coffee Roasters, Equator Coffees, and La Boulangerie de San Francisco, Hayes.

Will people actually drive to these drop-off points after they finish drinking their coffee to ensure the “reusable” cups will actually get washed and sanitized before making their way back to the cafés from which they came? And what will that add to the energy costs of these reusable cups? What is the estimated energy and resource cost/usage for washing and sanitizing the cups (in hot water with sanitizing soaps), and will each café be responsible for washing their cups or will there be a central washing/sanitizing company that will do that job, then drive the clean cups around to the various café locations? Additionally, have these costs been factored into the total cost of manufacture and usage and compared with the cost of a bio-based recyclable plastic cup?

The “Single-Use Cup Pilots” in Oakland, CA, will be conducted by Footprint LLC at Red Bay Coffee’s two Oakland locations and one location in Richmond, CA; and at Equator Coffees in Oakland. PTT MCC Biochem Company Ltd. will conduct testing at Snow White Coffee in Oakland.

Michael Kobori, Chief Sustainability Officer at Starbucks, commented: “We know finding a more sustainable cup solution will continue to require partnerships and innovative thinking. The ongoing work from the NextGen Cup Consortium provides valuable insights and learning for all the members, us included, as we continue to explore a variety of ways to better manage our waste and reduce our environmental footprint.”

Perhaps someone in the plastics industry needs to inform Kobori that studies show recyclable single-use plastic is the most sustainable option, and that “better ways of managing our waste” always include people who make a choice of whether to put their used cups into a recycle bin or toss them into the open environment. If they won’t put their recyclable plastic materials into recycling bins that are ubiquitous in almost every large city, what are the odds they’re going to drive around town to a “drop point” to ensure the reusability of these cups?

I’ve asked all of these tough questions of Closed Loop Partners, so we’ll wait and see if I get any answers. When—and if—I do, I’ll keep you posted.

Editor's note: I was pleasantly surprised to find a response to my questions in my in-box the next day from Georgia Sherwin, Communications Associate for Closed Loop Partners. Here is what she said.

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