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Restaurants rethink the disposable coffee cup

Photograph: Shutterstock

Are single-use coffee cups the new plastic drink straws? Both have been demonized as ecological hazards that restaurants can and should replace, with most of the backlash focused to date on straws because the fix is easier. 

But recent signs suggest pressure is building to find alternatives to disposable hot-beverage containers as well, a harder swap to make because the known possibilities aren’t feasible in terms of cost and functionality.

Now stakeholders of all stripes are going beyond the known and obvious in search of disruptive solutions. Here’s a sampling of those farther-afield replacements, some of which are already in the restaurant marketplace.

Cup sharing

A handful of restaurants in Boulder, Colo., are trying a coffee cup riff on bike sharing, a transportation alternative widely in place from coast to coast. Customers who order a coffee or tea are served the beverage in a silver permanent-ware cup, whether it’s for on-premise consumption or to go. When they’re done, cups are returned for someone else’s use, just like shared bikes or library books. A third party picks up used cups from participating establishments, then sanitizes and redistributes them.

Proponents say the approach is economically feasible because participating restaurants pay less per cup use than they’d spend to buy a new disposable. But the program is in its infancy, having just begun in recent weeks.

Smart cups I

Technology embedded in the permanent-ware cups recently introduced in the U.K. by Costa Coffee, the No. 2 coffee chain on that side of the Atlantic, turns the vessels into electric wallets that no one would want to lose, much less discard. The bottom of the container communicates with the store, relaying the user’s order and payment without contact, or loading funds into the cup. It’s unclear how the customer bearing the cup cleans it between uses.

Costa calls the containers its “clever cup.”

Smart cups II

Technology is also the differentiator used by The Ohio State University to steer students away from disposable cups. First-year students and returning sophomores are each provided with a 24-ounce cup bearing their name and an RFID (radio frequency identification) sticker that can communicate with the school’s 20 self-serve soft drink dispensers. Credits for 10 refills are encoded into the cups. After that, students can add more credits at reduced rates. Some 15,000 of the smart cups were distributed.

‘Latte levies’

Not all the efforts to keep single-use cups out of landfills hinge on finding alternative containers. In Montreal, restaurateurs are meeting this week to evaluate a controversial way of dampening demand for the single-use vessels. They’re looking to slap what amounts to an environmental sinner’s tax on orders served in a disposable cup, on the order of 25 cents per container. With that sort of upcharge, consumers may be willing to start lugging a reusable mug to their favorite coffee source.

It’s not the first use of what proponents have dubbed a latte levy. In the U.K., some Starbucks stores add 5 pence to the price of any hot drink that’s served in a disposable. Conversely, the coffee giant offers discounts (10 cents in the United States, 25 pence in the U.K.) on orders served in a customer’s reusable cup.

Provide a reusable cup

Every year, Starbucks releases a newly designed cup for use solely during the year-end holidays. This year, it gave that tradition a twist by simultaneously offering a free reusable version along with the standard disposable option. Patrons who took the complimentary 16-ounce tumbler will get 50 cents off if they use it for a beverage ordered after 2 p.m., normally a slower period for the chain. The deal runs through Jan. 7.

29 potential solutions

One of the brainier efforts to find a feasible alternative is the NexGen Cup Challenge, a serious competition conducted by the Ideo industrial-design think tank in collaboration with Starbucks, McDonald’s and Yum Brands, parent of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC. The challenge invited entrepreneurs and designers to submit their ideas. About 480 teams from 53 countries entered. 

A culled-down list of 29 teams was released this week. Each will be afforded an opportunity to work with an authority in the fields of design and product development, along with help in choosing the right materials for the cups.

The ideas in the running run the gamut. There’s a system that sounds similar to what’s being tried in Boulder (though with the addition of a deposit), as well as the Mushroom Cup, a version that contains a dormant, undetectable form of fungus. When the cup is discarded, the fungus reactivates and breaks down the cup.

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