I used to think this way until I wrote a story last fall about Honey Dew Donuts and Dunkin’ making the switch from foam to paper cups. I will never look at a disposable coffee cup the same way.
Here’s why: While paper is better than foam, these coffee cups are lined with plastic. They’re next to impossible to recycle. You’re not doing the planet a favor. Healthwise, it’s not good for you, ingesting all those plastic toxins heated by a hot liquid.
Have I scared you straight?
Americans go through about 120 billion disposable coffee cups a year, according to market research firm Freedonia Group. The solution to all that waste is to bring your own cup. If only it were that simple. Outside the People’s Republic of Cambridge, how many people do that? How many to-go tumblers did you buy only to see them collect dust in your kitchen cabinet?
That is why I subscribe to a cup for $3.99 a month. Yes, it sounds silly when I type these words or even when I’ve said it out loud (on the radio, no less).
Through a Boston startup called Coffee Cup Collective, I rent a 16-ounce stainless steel cup that I get access to five times a month, or $9.99 a month for unlimited use. The company is in a beta phase with the service available at Render Coffee (both Boston locations) and at two locations of Flour Bakery + Café (Seaport — Innovation and Design Building, and Cambridgeport).
Here’s how it works: download the app on your smartphone, order your drink from a partner cafe that serves coffee in a Collective cup, and then use your phone to scan the QR code on the bottom of the cup. Expect to get a discount for using your own cup.
Not only do you get to use cup in the coffee shop, you can walk out with it. You’ll need to return the cup within a week or be charged a $17 fee. (Each cup, by the way, has a name; I’ve rented “Wealthy Lavender Dragon” and “Faint White Python.”) When you’re finished with your drink, drop the cup off at a designated bin in a partner coffee shop. Leave the washing up to Cup Collective.
Alison Rogers is the 29-year-old founder of the Coffee Cup Collective, which has been a labor of love for her since 2013. She was working at the Environmental Protection Agency when she started to feel guilty about her coffee drinking habit.
“It was really bothering me that I was ordering from the Starbucks app three times a day and leaving a huge trail of trash,” said Rogers.
She began thinking about how to create a system of shared cups as part of a circular economy. Translation: Get consumers to ditch disposable cups and share reusable ones. To make it habit forming, she needed to design a system that was easy and convenient.
As with many aspiring entrepreneurs, Rogers kept refining her idea until it was time to bring it into the real world. In 2018, she joined an accelerator program for female entrepreneurs at Babson College called Women Innovating Now (WIN) Lab and conducted a pilot at Render’s Financial District location.
The first cup was made out of bamboo fibers, and after three days she shut down the pilot. The message from consumers: Love the mission, love the concept, hate the cups.
“I thought a cup was a cup,” said Rogers.
Thus began a search for the perfect reusable cup, one that doesn’t leave a taste, one that is stackable (so it won’t take up counter space) and recyclable (when the cup has reached its usage limit.)
She decided to go with a double-walled stainless steel cup. Cup Collective provides the cups to the coffee shops and picks them up daily to be washed.
More than 200 people have downloaded the app since its beta launch in October.Rogers’s focus at the moment is not scale but rather getting it right. Her board of advisers include former Panera Bread executive Stephanie Crimmins and Christine Riley Miller, Dunkin’s former senior director of corporate responsibility.
“What is so great about the Coffee Cup Collective is that it removes one of the barriers to reusable coffee cups: I don’t have to remember to bring it or wash it,” said Riley Miller, who is now director of sustainability at Samsonite.
Mike Brucklier, director of operations at Flour, the Boston bakery chain started by pastry chef Joanne Chang, hopes to roll out Coffee Cup Collective across all eight Flour locations.
Flour has been on a mission to reduce its use of disposable take-out containers. It goes through about 1.6 million disposal cups a year and for years has been offering customers a “green coffee” option. Bring your own cup, and your coffee is only $1.50. Last year Flour sold about 40,000 “green coffees,” which represents about 12 percent of its drip coffee sales.
“We’re really excited to see how it goes,” said Brucklier. “It’s going to be a really great initiative that we can offer our guests to feel good about coming to Flour.”
Chris Dadey, owner of Render Coffee, offers the service in both of his locations (the other one is in the South End). He believes little changes can have a big impact after seeing how Boston’s plastic bag ban affected his customers. Now that he charges 5 cents per bag, usage has dropped dramatically to just 10 percent of the number of bags used before.
Coffee Cup Collective could potentially spur that kind of behavior change with disposable cups.
“It’s super simple,” said Dadey. “That’s what makes it work in my mind.”
Rogers isn’t the only one thinking about sharing reusable cups. Other players nationally include Vessel Works, which launched in 2016. Vessel, which markets itself as a reusable cup service for all beverages, operates in eight locations in Boulder, Colo., and 12 locations in Berkeley, Calif.
Dagny Tucker, founder of Vessel Works, which is based in Boulder, said momentum is building for the concept of sharing reusable containers. “The last 12 months have been a radical shift,” she said, attributing it to the growing awareness about plastic pollution in the ocean.
Tucker said she has been approached by Fortune 500 companies that make single-use containers looking to make an investment in the reusable space. When that is happening, she said, “You know you have a shifting market.”
So what are you waiting for? Catch the wave, and ditch that disposable coffee cup today.