In 2011, Starbucks used 4 billion single-use cups in one year. Imagine if even a quarter of the customers brought in their own reusable cups for Starbucks workers to fill, it would mean that 1 billion fewer cups would need to be produced. Consider, too, how many coffee shops exist and all the waste that comes from coffee, globally. If a reusable cup becomes a greater part of the coffee experience, billions of cups could be saved from ever even being produced.
Nicole Grossberg, who runs @zerowaste.nyc on Instagram, laughed when I asked her how reusables fit into the fight against climate change. “I could talk about this for hours,” she said. Grossberg runs a sustainability and climate change education hub with in-person events and private workshops for different types of corporations, companies, or community groups. One of her workshops, held in August 2020, was entirely about how to keep using reusable coffee cups during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The short of it, Grossberg says, is “It’s a linear economy that needs to move to a circular economy.” Any single-use container needs to be part of a cycle of washing, using, disposing, washing, and reusing.
The pandemic was a huge challenge for the sustainability community. Grossberg watched as COVID-19 “basically took away everything that we had worked towards in terms of reuse and educating and advocating for [reusables]. Everybody knows, but every business pretty much moved to single-use because they were just afraid of COVID-19 on surfaces.” (COVID-19 can live on non-porous surfaces for up to three days, according to the Centers for Disease Control.)
Grossberg worked to find solutions to the reusable cup problem. Some suggestions she provided include asking baristas to “Make my drink in one of your reusables.” Then, if the barista didn’t want to touch the cup, ask “Can you make it in something reusable you have and I’ll hold [the cup] while you pour it in?” Finally, after a flood of questions about reusables in coffee shops, Grossberg sat down and made a crowd-sourced map of coffee shops in New York City that accept reusables.
Part of the reason Grossberg worked so hard to use her reusable cup is because she believes that reusables are an integral part of fighting the climate crisis. “Essentially, we need the infrastructure as a society to make reusables scalable. The problem right now is that it’s not. It’s very small, it’s not convenient, I have to bring my own cup, I have to lug it with me in my bag — it’s a responsibility that’s burdened onto the customer.”
“But,” she hopefully chirps, “it is possible.” Grossberg described the company she works at, Re:Dish, which brings reusables to venues, schools, companies, and even municipalities. Customers are given a Re:Dish container and once they’re done, they drop it in a return bin where Re:Dish collects, cleans, and sanitizes the reusables before returning them to the school, corporate cafeteria, arena, etc.
To bring reusables to a city, Grossberg explains, “There needs to be return access on every corner — everywhere you see a garbage bin in NYC, there need to be reuse/return bins.” The way to get people to buy into reusables is “It needs to be as easy as dropping in your garbage.”
Jenny Cooper, the owner of IXV Coffee in Boerum Hill wants to get away from single-use cups. “I don’t think people realize how much trash they’re generating when they have single-use cups. It’s not just the coffee cups, it’s the cold cups, which I think are probably the worst. Even if they’re compostable cold cups, we don’t have a lot of compostable services to sustain that.” To combat the plastic in cold cups, Cooper gives out cold drinks in more compostable paper cups. While people were surprised, the change didn’t cause any customers to leave.
As part of the Fiscal Year 2022 report, Starbucks outlined a test program at 60 stores in Taiwan called Borrow A Cup. The program, if successful, would “Encourage customers to shift away from single-use cups.”
IXV Coffee is already proving that a borrow-a-cup program (or swap-cup, as Cooper calls it), is successful.
“I actually count how many [cups] we use,” Cooper admits. In the IXV Coffee cashier system, employees are required to select “reusable” or “single-use” before they can ring up a customer. “During the winter,” Cooper says, “our reusables, which includes cups that are used here, is about 30%, and then during the summer we go up to 40-50% of people using reusables.”
IXV Coffee’s goal is to get 100% of people using reusables, and Cooper’s swap-cup program is getting them closer. “The more people know about it and hear about it, everybody is so into it,” she said. “A lot of people, especially in a neighborhood cafe, are like ‘Wow I don’t have to carry my cup anymore,’ they think it’s amazing. At the time of the interview, the swap-cup program at IXV Coffee had only been going for about three weeks, yet, Cooper says, the program has had “a tremendous response.”
Cooper started IXV Coffee intending to use as little plastic as possible. IXV Coffee use Hay Straws (organic material, compostable), they have water bottles in aluminum (infinitely recyclable), they use fabric coffee filters, all the furniture and even much of the construction was reclaimed from somewhere (reduces the creation of new materials), all their milk comes in glass bottles (which are returned), coffee grounds are donated for compost, plastic sleeves for IXV Coffee’s compostable cups are donated to AnyBag, and for pastries, they have a sort of swap-cup program with local bakeries using tins that go back and forth between them. In the end, IXV Coffee has only three points of waste: single-use cups, Oatly which comes in TetraPaks, and the bags holding coffee beans.
“Every step of the way, I wanted to find something that would leave the least trash. We live in a culture of trash,” she explained.
IXV Coffee’s low-waste model and swap-cup program isn’t something that Cooper had difficulty establishing — she just made conscious choices along the way. “It’s easy,” she laughed, “I’m not doing anything revolutionary.”
One thing that both Grossberg and Cooper agreed upon is that recycling is not the solution to the climate crisis. “Our recycling program changes every year!” Cooper exclaimed, going on to suggest that the ever-changing and stringent rules of recycling make it difficult as a solution. Grossberg explained the problem with recycling more technically: “The rate of recycling is extremely low — there’s contamination, there’s not a lot of market for the materials. Even if you are reusing and upcycling plastic, for example, it’s still degrading every time you use it in another product, and so you have to introduce virgin plastic.” Paradoxically, if something can be recycled or is made of recycled materials, it’s still a single-use item and still contributes to a culture of disposables and trash.
Compost and reusables, on the other hand, are much more sound solutions. Even better is the Choose2Reuse Bill which was recently introduced to the NYC Council. The bill would require corporate-owned fast casual food establishments in NYC to offer consumers the option to request reusable food packaging and participate in a system to return the food packaging.” Sign the petition to support the bill, here.
To get started using reusables, first, get a mug. Grossberg recommends buying one second-hand off of Facebook Marketplace or from a second-hand shop. The best materials for reusable mugs are stainless steel, and glass, as they’re both more recyclable and last longer than plastic. “But if it’s going to be plastic,” Grossberg sighs, “I recommend that it’s made of polypropylene and is BHA free.”
Local programs in Brooklyn such as Cup Zero To-Go don’t even require you to get a mug — just the app. Walk into a participating store such as Little Skips or Clementine Bakery, get a cup, and when you’re done, return it to a drop-off station. To Grossberg, if companies like Re:Dish, Cup Zero To-Go, or stores like IXV Coffee “Can prove to be successful, it’s a great way to learn how we can replicate that in more neighborhoods and cities and on a larger scale someday.”