As a planet we produce the astounding 264 billion paper cups per year. Some of them are recyclable, some aren’t — but no matter their label, the vast majority end up in landfills because of an inner plastic inner lining which make the cups tricky to actually recycle.
That overwhelming amounts of coffee cup waste is the target of the NextGen Cup Challenge, a global competition to create a scalable zero waste cup solution. It’s the first project from the NextGen Consortium, an initiative aimed at reducing food packaging waste that’s managed by Closed Loop Partners as well as big-name food corporations like Starbucks, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Nestlé and others (h/t Nation’s Restaurant News).
The 12 winners of the NextGen Cup Challenge were selected last year, and this week they’re beginning to roll out their cup solutions in participating cafés in the Bay Area. In San Francisco and Paolo Alto, coffee shops will be testing out reusable cups tricked out with chips and tracking codes. Once they’re done with their drink, customers can return their smart cup to any participating café or other designated drop off points. After that, NextGen will collect and sanitize the cups, then re-send them back out into circulation. San Francisco shops will use cups designed by Indonesia-based returnable packing service Muuse, and those in Paolo Alto will feature cups made by British startup CupClub.
In March, cafés in Oakland will start piloting their own waste-free cup solution. Instead of reusable cups, participating cafés will use fully recyclable single-use cups — that is, cups that don’t have pesky plastic liners, which sometimes make other “recyclable” cups difficult to actually, well, recycle.
Even though big chains aren’t using sustainable cups yet, this a still big step for the NextGen Cup Challenge. Launching in small, local cafés is an important proof of concept, as well as an opportunity to see which type of waste-free cup is the easiest to implement and most popular with consumers. The end goal is to roll out the most successful solution on a large scale — to national chains like McDonald’s and Starbucks.
NextGen Cup Challenge isn’t the only group out there fighting coffee cup waste. Elsewhere in the Bay Area, Nestle-owned chain Blue Bottle is also testing a zero-single-use-cup program (featuring reusable cups) as part of their initiative to go waste-free by the end of this year.
Back in January, my colleague Jenn Marston predicted that 2020 could well be the year of the waste-free coffee shop. With NextGen Cup Challenge, a project backed by industry giants, finally starting to take off, there’s a chance that might actually happen.