I’ve been curious about the logistics of reusable coffee cups, since they are a good case study for sustainability in the food industry. (And I love coffee. And mugs.)
Grabbing a quick coffee on the go is ingrained in a lot of people’s lifestyles. What would it take to modify this habit to eliminate waste from the use of disposable cups?
In this post, I’m approaching the question from the point of view of a designer. We can make changes for ourselves, but to really make a dent in the waste problem, we need to increase the overall adoption rate of the changes.
As I wrote in my recent piece on time poverty, we need to design sustainable behaviors while taking into account everyone’s constraints, including the busiest among us.
Below, I go into the research to get our wheels turning on this design problem.
Bringing your own cup
Customers bringing their own reusable cups is one readily available option to reduce waste. With a few lifestyle adjustments on our part, it can become second nature.
Let’s think through the logistics of having a reusable mug handy when you need it. There are a few different actions you would need to add to your day:
- (Remember to) pack your cup before heading out for coffee.
- Ask the barista to serve the coffee in your own cup.
- (Remember to) bring your cup back in the house.
- Put the cup into your dishwashing workflow (either the dishwasher or hand-washing).
- (Literally) rinse and repeat.
These actions can become part of your routine if you identify cues for or schedule each of these steps into your week.
One question to consider here is how many reusable cups you will need. Naturally, it depends on how often you do your dishes. If you run your dishwasher a few times a week, you’ll need enough cups to last till the next run.
The environmental tradeoffs work in our favor if we maximize the number of times we use our mugs. This article in Anthropocene Magazine explains why:
Indeed, only with frequent use can one decrease the potential impacts of the reusable cup; it would take between 20 (human health category for a polypropylene travel mug) and more than 1,000 (ecosystem-quality category for all travel mugs) uses, depending on the cup/mug type and the environmental indicator, to make up for the impacts of a single-use cup. If a reusable cup is used fewer times than that, the single-use cup is better for the environment.
What should we do then? Can we help the environment? The answer is yes: by reusing your cup for several years and by limiting the quantity of soap and hot water for washing it, the reusable cup should be the way to go. Limiting your coffee intake could also be something to look at, but that is another problem altogether.
Washing the cups efficiently is important. Here are some estimates around the effects on water use:
Water Footprint Calculator has estimates for the amount of water used in hand washing vs dishwashers for a load of dishes.
Hand washing one load of dishes can use 20 gallons of water, whereas water- and energy-efficient dishwaters use as little as 4 gallons.
…and this Guardian article has estimates for the amount of water used in making disposable cups.
[…] it takes water to brew the coffee (0.05 litres), but even more to make the plastic lid (2.5 litres) as well as the paper cup and sleeve (5.6 litres).
Let’s do some back-of-the-envelope calculations to compare the water use of reusable cups vs. disposable cups, per drink. Since I’m calculating ‘per drink’, I’m not factoring in the water used to make a reusable cup. I’m assuming you will reuse the cup often enough for it not to matter.
Say you drink 5 cups of coffee a week. The quote above means one disposable cup (with lid) takes 2.1 gallons of water to make, so the water use associated with the cups per week is 10.5 gallons.
With a reusable cups, I’m going to estimate how many more loads in the dishwasher you need because you added reusable cups to the mix. Let’s say you use five reusable cups a week. I think that’s about 1/6th of a dishwasher load (just eyeballing my own dishwasher, I think I could get at least 30 cups in there). So that’s an added weekly water use of 0.67 gallons per week.
Okay! So that was some fun math, and not terribly precise. But it validates that that having a few reusable mugs, using them for as long as possible, and washing them efficiently is a huge improvement on getting a disposable cup every time.
Changing the culture around to-go coffee
Bringing reusable cups has not caught on (yet). Research in the UK suggests that only 5% of hot drinks are sold in reusable cups brought by the customer (as described in this article from Circular Online). I would speculate that the numbers in the US are similar.
One of the challenges of bringing your own mug is that it requires time and thinking ahead. Unfortunately, these are often in short supply.
How did we get here?
I read up on the evolution of the to-go coffee cup and cultural environment that led to it, is as outlined in this fascinating article in Life and Thyme:
In America, we see the coffee cup as a symbol of the modern professional — the marker of a person on the go. We assert that we have no time to spare to sit with a steamy cup, but must take our jolt of caffeine on the road (or down the sidewalk, or up the elevator) to face the day full-force.
[…] In 1907, a Massachusetts lawyer Lawrence Luellen, invented the first disposable cup to stop the spread of germs from these communal cups. His invention, originally called the Health Kup, would develop into what we know as the dixie cup today.
[…] In 1952, the Pan American Coffee Bureau coined the term “coffee break.” This made official the practice that began in defense plants during the war, when tired workers needed a few minutes of rest and a caffeine jolt to make it through their long workdays.
In 1964, 7-Elevens on Long Island became the first chain stores to offer to-go traveller cups. From there, commuter coffee culture proliferated as chain convenience stores across the country began to carry twenty-ounce behemoth to-go cups, usually as part of a loyalty discount “coffee club.” A 1989 New York Times article referred to this specific travel mug as a “plastic sloshproof wonder” for late-twentieth century commuters.
[…] Starbucks had to standardize their offerings for to-go cups and lids. The company chose the Solo Traveller, a lid designed specifically for drinking on the go. […] There would be no more tearing, pinching or peeling back plastic lids to get to coffee while walking or driving; the traveller lid was ergonomically designed to be sipped from while on the move.
It is like a history of American consumerism, car culture, and hustle culture in miniature!
I guess people reallly like the busy, on-the-go feel of grabbing coffee and power-walking down the street with a briefcase. It kind of goes with the caffeine.
This post from the High Country Conservation Center also points out that online and drive-thru orders, which may be a majority of coffee sales, don’t work with reusable cups.
Personally, I think increasing adoption of customer-brought reusable cups is important, but we shouldn’t count on getting to 100% adoption. According to this article in Bon Apetit:
Disposable coffee cups are here for good, says food historian Cory Bernat, who co-curated the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s American Food & Wine History exhibits.
“When I look at food culture, it’s all about habit, and businesses have a lot more influence over our behaviors than we like to admit,” she says. “I see companies that are very quick to reassure people it’s OK to ask for convenience, and people who are very quick to accept that offer. People just want this thing out of their hands in the easiest way possible.”
There may always be a segment of the population that doesn’t carry a reusable cup. For them, we need to figure out alternatives. From the same Bon Apetit article:
On the other hand, [Matt] Fury of Think Coffee has emphasized compostability in his disposable coffee cups, with his stores using cups from U.K. firm Vegware, while encouraging people to bring in reusable cups.
“The future will be semi-reusable,” Fury says.
Even so, I’d urge that we do everything we can to normalize bringing your own cup, as well as slowing down in general.
There are several trends already in this direction, as we grow less enamored of hustle culture in general. All we have to do is accelerate them.
Logistical changes at coffee shops
The coffee shop is where the highest leverage changes can happen. After all, they are the ones procuring all the disposable cups in the first place. They can decide whether to change that.
The first and most basic change that coffee shop managers should do is create a workflow to handle customers bringing their own cups, or requesting a ‘for here’ cup.
In my experience, either of these requests seems to throw baristas for a loop, because their processes are not designed for it. Sometimes the instruction goes through multiple employees in written form, and there is no clear option to include these serving requests.
This is not these employees’ fault! (Please don’t hassle them about it if they get your order wrong. I shudder to imagine what it’s like to serve pre-caffeinated people in the morning.)
Whoever designs these workflows hasn’t thought through these eventualities, and it’s time they did.
Secondly, coffee shops need to replace all their to-go cups with compostable or recyclable options. Standard paper coffee cups are not recyclable because they are lined with plastic. This means that the second they are manufactured, they are destined for the landfill. They have no place in a sustainable economy.
These were the two most fundamental changes. And there are even more innovative options available…
Reusable cup swap schemes
These are schemes where reusable cups are interchangeable. You can buy your coffee in one cup, and return it at the same (or in some cases, different) coffee shop. Your order is served in one of the pre-washed cups they have on hand.
All the washing is done in efficient, industrial dishwashers.
And it requires marginally less foresight than bringing your own cup — you can grab coffee on a whim, but you have to remember to bring the cup back eventually. Or you don’t, and the cup is yours and you lose the deposit.
The main concern would be if people used these cups as if they were disposable. That is the worst of both worlds, because as we saw in the first section of this post, you need to use a cup about a 1000 times to get the environmental benefit. So cup swap schemes will still need some behavior change to go with it. Even so, I find the idea promising.
This Daily Grind post outlines the advantages:
“Our staff wash and sanitise the used cups and then place them back into the float, ready for the next customer,” he [Cyrus Hernstadt, Director of Communications at Think Coffee] tells me. “This saves customers from cleaning their reusable cup at home, as well as diverting a single-use cup from going to landfill.”
Although many customers do have their own reusable cups, visits to coffee shops are often spontaneous — meaning it’s easy for consumers to forget to bring them. What’s more, remembering to clean the cup can be a deterrent for some customers.
For baristas, reusable cup swap schemes can help to improve workflow. Instead of having to rinse out a customer’s own reusable cup, they can simply swap it for one of the coffee shop’s prewashed reusable cups.
As well as being more convenient for baristas, it’s also more hygienic.
“HuskeeSwap helps to reduce the risk of cross-contamination because the cups are washed onsite to higher food safety standards, rather than being brought into the coffee shop from public transport, a car, or a bag,” Michael explains.
Furthermore, reusable cup swap initiatives are more convenient and accessible for many consumers — especially if they have forgotten to bring their own reusable cup and don’t want to use a disposable cup. In the case of HuskeeSwap, Cyrus explains that cups can be borrowed or stored through the app.
Temporary holding containers
The post from High Country Conservation Center mentions a clever workaround for online and drive-thru orders:
There’s also discussions [at Starbucks] of using temporary holding containers for pre-ordered beverages and then transferring to the customer’s own vessel at the drive-through window or at the counter for pre-orders as well as adding a window for customers to drop off mugs for filling at an earlier point in the drive-through process.
From a design perspective, I find these solutions modular and elegant. It just makes sense to me that there would be alternatives to throwing a cup away every single time you drink (an absurd idea if you think about it) that don’t shift all the work to the customer.
To eliminate the waste from disposable coffee cups, we’ll need a combination of approaches so that we cover all segments of coffee drinkers.
The most important changes happen at the coffee shops themselves. For us regular folks, there are multiple levers that might speed these changes along, including regulation and consumer pressure.
I’ve outlined all the research I found on the subject in the hope that it will spark ideas, whether you’re a customer, designer, coffee shop owner, or just someone who cares about the environment.
Here’s my worksheet resource for having a deeply creative work session!
Also appears: LinkedIn, Medium