July 24, 2024

Next month, more than 30 chain restaurants and locally owned coffee shops and eateries in Petaluma, Calif., will begin serving drinks in reusable cups by default as part of a first-of-its-kind pilot program intended to reduce pollution from single-use plastics.

Through the Petaluma Reusable Cup Project — a three-month pilot program sponsored by a food and beverage industry group called the NextGen Consortium — customers will be served hot and cold drinks in bright purple reusable plastic cups unless they ask for disposables or bring their own cups. After drinking their coffee, tea or soft drink, they will be able to return the cups to any of the participating establishments, or to one of 60 return containers strategically placed around the city.

A reuse logistics provider, Muuse, will be in charge of collecting, washing and redistributing the clean cups to the coffee shops and restaurants.

Kate Daly, managing director of impact investment firm Closed Loop Partners – which oversees the NextGen consortium – said the program would be a major milestone. Existing reusable cup programs tend to operate in sports stadiums, concert halls and other confined spaces where it’s easier to keep track of inventory. No other citywide program in the US has made reusable cups the default option for so many different foodservice brands.

The project aims to achieve an “unprecedented saturation of reusable packaging” within Petaluma, Daly told Grist. Thanks to funding from the NextGen Consortium — founded by Starbucks and McDonald’s and supported by companies including PepsiCo and Coca-Cola — she said hundreds of thousands of reusable cups will be deployed throughout the city in preparation for the program’s Aug. 5 start date.

Participating locations will include Starbucks, Peet’s Coffee, Dunkin’, KFC and The Habit Burger Grill, as well as local cafes and restaurants such as the Petaluma Pie Company and Tea Room Cafe. Closed Loop Partners said it chose Petaluma — a city of about 60,000 people just north of San Francisco — because of its dense, walkable downtown, and because of residents’ receptiveness to reuse programs. Many people may have become familiar with reuse last year, when Starbucks tested a smaller scale reusable cup program in 12 locations between Petaluma and another city nearby.

Although the new program is limited to Petaluma and will last only three months, it could help inform initiatives in other cities that seek to do away with single-use plastic packaging, the vast majority of which is made from fossil fuels. The US produces close to 40 million metric tons of plastic waste each year and recycles only 5 percent of it; the rest is sent to landfills or incinerators, or ends up as trash.

Some types of plastic, including disposable cups, are even more unlikely to be recycled. According to the most recent data from the Environmental Protection Agency, as of 2018, the US produces more than 1 million tons of plastic plates and cups annually and recycle virtually none of it.

Reuse programs are supposed to help by reducing the demand for new plastic packaging. Some initiatives allow customers to bring their own containers to grocery stores and restaurants; involve others store-owned containers that customers borrow and then return. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the most effective reimbursable container programs can reduce material use by up to 75 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by up to 70 percent, compared to the status quo. The nonprofit also estimates that American businesses could save about $10 billion in material costs if they replaced just 20 percent of their single-use plastic packaging with reusable alternatives.

In designing the Petaluma Reusable Cup Project, Daly and her colleagues sought to ensure a smoother experience than offered in previous trials, including some in the San Francisco Bay Area which was launched by the NextGen Consortium. One key focus was on what she called “precompetitive collaboration,” or getting businesses to buy into a common reuse system in which all the elements—cups, logistics, messaging—are shared. This may go against companies’ competitive instincts, but it reduces costs so that businesses can participate in a larger reuse system instead of managing one on their own.

To make the program easy to participate in, the Petaluma Reusable Cup Project will be free and will involve no customer tracking. Most other reusable cup programs rely on financial motivations to make sure inventory isn’t lost—either they charge customers a small, refundable deposit when they borrow a reusable container, or they take down the customer’s credit card information so they may be charged if they fail to return the container after a set time. These options often require a program-specific application to be downloaded.

In Petaluma, however, customers won’t have to do anything to participate — they’ll just order their drinks as normal, with no additional payment or exchange of personal information. A QR code on each cup will direct customers to a website with instructions on how and where to return it – at one of the participating eateries, in swap bins on city streets or in convenience stores and supermarkets, or through a home delivery service To schedule mice.

Customers in a busy coffee shop.  In the foreground, some are sitting at a wooden table.  In the background, a customer orders from a barista.  The room is brightly lit.
Rob Daly, owner and president of Avid Coffee, is excited to offer reusable cups — even if they don’t have his company’s logo on them. “I don’t need the cup to say ‘Avid’ on it or to have a big A,” he said. Rather, he will stand out based on his coffee beans’ source and quality. Courtesy of Avid Coffee

Rob Daly (no relation to Kate) is owner and president of Avid Coffee, an independent coffee shop with a location in downtown Petaluma. He said the extensive network of drop-off locations made it a “no-brainer” to participate in the Petaluma Reusable Cup Project. Having reliable access to a point of return “takes the guesswork out of the consumer’s hands and makes it easier for them,” he told Grist. “When they walk out of my store and they see a drop-off point, whether it’s my drop-off point or in various places around me or in the city – it solves everything.”

Not asking for mugs or tracking customers might encourage more people to participate, but it’s also somewhat of a gamble. If many customers decided to keep their containers or forgot to return them, the Petaluma Reusable Cup Project would have no way to hold anyone accountable — it would have to pick up the cost of replacing those cups. But Kate Daly said her team had taken some steps to mitigate this problem, such as labeling the cups with the message “swallow, return, repeat” to remind customers not to throw them away. The cups’ bright purple color is meant to make them “the right kind of ugly”, as Kate Daly put it, to discourage people from keeping them at home.

More importantly, the cups aren’t individually very valuable – they’re made from a cheap, sturdy plastic called polypropylene – so they won’t represent a huge loss when some inevitably go missing.

Many other reuse programs have also opted for polypropylene containers, despite concerns that they might still leaches toxic chemicals and the inherent challenges with its recovery. Some environmental groups argue that single-use plastic should be replaced with reusable containers made of metal and glass, which are more inert and easier to recycle. Most plastics can only be recycled once or twice before they “turned off” in lower quality products such as carpets.

Kate Daly said the Petaluma project chose polypropylene because it weighs less than alternative materials and therefore causes fewer greenhouse gas emissions during transport. She also said stainless steel cups sometimes get watermarks on them after many wash cycles, causing customers to think they are unclean.

NextGen’s funding for the Petaluma reusable cup project will run until the end of October. After that, it will be up to city officials to decide whether they want to continue — and find a way to pay for the program, with or without any structural changes.

Georgia Sherwin, Closed Loop Partners’ senior director of strategy and partnerships, told Grist that some return containers will remain standing after the program’s end date so customers can continue to return their mugs. “The results of the first three months of the initiative will ultimately inform the next rounds of iteration and what a continuation or future reuse program like this will look like in Petaluma and beyond,” she wrote in an email.

Once the mugs are collected, Sherwin said her organization aims to “maximize their uses before they are recycled,” possibly by donating them to local schools, cafeterias and businesses.

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