Earlier this week, a company called T’HO Coffee in Los Angeles wrapped a successful Kickstarter campaign, raising more than $20,000 to open a coffee shop in the City of Angels that will be completely zero waste. That means reusable cups and straws, cheesecloth in place of disposable brewing filters, and nary a plastic utensil to be found onsite.
The success of T’HO’s Kickstarter campaign suggests consumers are finally ready to take the idea of zero-waste coffeeshops seriously. Let’s hope so. At a time when only about 9 percent of all plastic generated is actually gets recycled, it seems we’re getting fed up with disposable cups and lids winding up in landfills alongside paper sleeves, single-use straws, and those ridiculous plastic lid stoppers.
Going fully zero waste is, to make an understatement, no small feat for any business (or consumer, for that matter). There are companies trying the concept out. Blue Bottle Coffee snagged a bunch of headlines in late 2019 when it announced it would make all locations zero waste in 2020. The company also noted that the initiative “may not work, that [it] may cost us money, and that may make your life a little more complicated.”
We’ll have to wait and see how Blue Bottle’s efforts pan out over the next several months, and see if the reality of having a truly zero-waste operation is too expensive for most coffeeshops. But between the extremes of no waste and plastic lid stoppers lies a huge number of opportunities for cafes to cut down on waste, and many are already doing just that.
Coffeeshops hand out roughly 250 billion paper cups every year. Most of those go straight to the landfill.
While larger companies like McDonald’s, Starbucks, and others have put some of their dollars behind initiatives to develop a truly recyclable, compostable cup, many smaller chains and independent businesses are getting rid of the to-go cup altogether. At least, they’re headed that way, and encouraging customers to do the same.
For example, when T’HO’s shop opens, it will offer customers a slight upcharge (the exact amount isn’t yet specified) to get their drinks in a compostable to-go cup. At the same time, those who bring their own cup will receive a small discount.
Once it goes zero-waste, Blue Bottle’s customers will have one option for getting coffee to go: laying down a “modest deposit” for a reusable to-go cup they can later return to the cafe for cleaning.
Reusable Cup Programs
Ditching the to-go cup doesn’t mean these companies will change consumer expectations around delivery and convenience overnight, though. In fact, with off-premises orders expected to drive the bulk of restaurant sales, including coffeeshops, over the next 10 years, more must be done to meet this demand without further trashing the planet.
To that end, a handful of companies are trialing programs that combine coffee delivery and reusable cups. In the UK, CupClub provides participating coffee retailers with plant-based plastic mugs that contain RFID tags that get registered to an individual customer’s CupClub account when they purchase a coffee. Users can return the cup to a CupClub location when finished with their drink. It’s basically Citi-Bike for reusable coffee cups, and the concept is catching on. Vessel Works has a similar program in Colorado and Berkeley, California. And a NYC-based company called GOffee has a coffee delivery program for corporate offices that delivers drinks in resuable cups then collects the cups for cleaning the next day.
Straws, Sleeves, Sugar Packets and More
Cups are a huge part of coffeeshop waste, but they’re not the only culprit. As Seven Corners, a coffeeshop in Portland, Oregon, points out in the importance of “refusing to offer things that are inherently wasteful.” The company, part of the Nossa Familia Coffee company, doesn’t offer things like individual sugar packets, plastic containers for condiments (e.g., cream cheese), and keeps things like straws and sleeves behind the counter and only available on request.
Places like Seven Corners and Blue Bottle have also historically sold coffee by the bag for consumers to take home. Yes, most of these paper bags can be recycled. But since the point of zero-waste initiatives is about changing consumer mindset around grabbing inherently wasteful products in the first place, some of these companies have ditched the paper bag in favor of reusable containers. Seven Corners customers only offers bulk coffee to customers who bring their own containers. Ditto for Blue Bottle once it switches its shops over to zero waste. When T’HO opens, customers will be able to grab a glass jar in the store, fill it with coffee, and pay based on weight.
Reusable packaging is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to making the coffeeshop a zero-waste initiative. It’s also low-hanging fruit, meaning it’s somewhat easier and cheaper for businesses to adopt as part of their overall operations. There are other ways the coffeeshop can become more eco-friendly, from proper disposal of espresso grounds to working with more responsible suppliers. Some of these areas are more challenging than others in terms of making them a part of a shop’s overall business strategy. As we move forward into 2020, efforts by early movers like Blue Bottle, T’HO, and others will give us a better idea of how to make initiatives like these more widespread.