At most coffee shops, if you bring in a reusable mug you might get a 10% discount on your mocha, or just a pat on the back. But Vessel Works is upping the ante: today the company launched a beta program in two cafés in Boulder, Colorado, which lets people rent a reusable stainless steel mug for free from their local café (h/t Fastcompany). “Think bike sharing or a library book but for to-go mugs,” states their website.
Customers can use a free app to rent a Vessel mug, after which they’ll have five days to return it to one of Vessel’s drop-off kiosks or at any participating café. As they walk around sipping from their rented mugs, people will get reports on their app about how much waste they’re preventing, how much water they’re saving, and how they’re reducing their carbon footprint.
If they go over that time, they’ll be charged for it: $15 for an unreturned mug, $2 for a mug top. The website doesn’t indicate exactly how the company tracks the mugs, but I’m guessing each mug is either fitted with an RFID tag or a QR code that customers scan before they start drinking and scan again when they drop it off.
Cafés pay ten cents per Vessel mug, which, according to an interview with the founder, shakes out to less than constantly restocking paper cups, at least for a relatively small-volume spot. Vessel also picks up and cleans all the mugs at its own commercial facility before returning them — café partners don’t have to do any of the work.
Participating coffee retailers stock the cups, made of plant-based plastic, and give them to a CupClub member buying a coffee. The latter can then “return” the cup to any number of locations around the city. Once returned, the cups are collected, washed, and redistributed to the participating stores. And since each cup is RFID tagged and registered to a user’s account, CupClub can charge a user for unreturned cups.
Like we said — similar.
But there’s plenty of room for innovation in coffee cup waste reduction, because, well, it’s a huge problem. Most paper coffee cups have a thin plastic lining, which means that they can’t be recycled. That leads to a truly shocking amount of paper cups end up in landfills: over 100 million every day in the U.S. alone.
On the surface, services like Vessel and CupClub sound like a slam-dunk: they reduce the amount of single-use paper cups without making the consumer or the café pay extra money or do extra work. But the success of both companies hinges on one thing: convenience. And that depends on how many drop-off kiosks they have available, and how easy they are for people to swing by when they’re done slurping down their morning caffeine dose. Because if the drop-off locations aren’t convenient, then Vessel and CupClub’s mugs become the same as any other reusable mug you have to tote around with you all day — a pain in the butt.
The link for all kiosk locations led to an error page on the Vessel website, so I couldn’t get a sense of where or how many there are. CupClub may have a better system in place: In October the company announced that it would be trialing its rental cups with the U.K. retail group the John Lewis Partnership, which owns grocery chain Waitrose. Since Waitrose’s and John Lewises are pretty ubiquitous on London streets, it wouldn’t be hard to pop into one to return a cup when you’re done sipping without going out of your way. The other benefit is that CupClub (at least theoretically) won’t have to build out any deposit kiosks, which are costly and could cause logistical headaches.
Here at the Spoon, we’ve been closely covering (and cheering on) the initiatives to do away with single-use cups and straws. Starbucks recently eliminated single-use plastic straws in its store, replacing them with a sippy-cup-like lid. The coffee giant is also working to create a recyclable and/or compostable cup, and McDonald’s joined their mission this July.
But until Starbucks finally develops a recyclable coffee cup, companies like Vessel and CupClub are a good interim solution to take a bite out of paper cup waste.