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Cup-sharing programs snag a spotlight in the hunt for eco-friendlier restaurant packaging

The plans aim to replace single-use containers with vessels that patrons use and return—often to a different establishment.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Do urban bike-sharing programs hold the key to ending restaurants’ reliance on single-use cups?  

Three winners of this year’s NextGen Cup Challenge, a high-profile effort to foster ideas for keeping beverage containers out of landfills, earned their honors with plans that encourage restaurant patrons to “share” containers. 

In two of the three models, consumers would take a cup from one establishment, use it for a drink, and then return it to any other place participating in the program. In one of the setups, the customer pays a deposit that’s refunded by the place where the cup is returned.

In the third model, permanent cups are equipped with RFID tags that indicate what cups should be returned to what establishment by the administrators of the program. Customers pay a small deposit, use the container and then leave it at a retrieval station, be it an office, restaurant or other convenient location. 

Money apparently moves in and out of the customer’s account. The principle is similar to the new electric scooter-sharing programs that have been adopted by Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, among other cities.

All of the plans have moved beyond the conceptual stage, though outside of the United States. In the United Kingdom, customers enrolled in a program called Clubcup can take a cup, have it filled, and return it when done to a bright yellow drop-off box in participating establishments. The cups are sanitized and reallocated to businesses within the network.

ReCup, the variation that involves a deposit on cups, is being tried in Germany. The RFID-dependent model, Revolv, is being introduced in Indonesia and Hong Kong.

Similar programs are being tested in the United States. In Boulder, Colo., for instance, a handful of establishments are offering customers reusable insulated mugs through a program called Vessel. If the container isn’t returned within five days to a recovery kiosk, the customer is charged for the cup. 

An app tracks who has what mug and when it’s returned.

The setup was reportedly tested earlier in New York City.

Cup reuse programs have their own category in the NextGen Cup Challenge, a structured brainstorming where entrants air detailed suggestions for deflecting containers from landfills. Judges decide which of the notions are the most innovative and match the submitters with experts who can help in refining the ideas. From that group, the best ideas in three categories are selected as the competition’s winners, which entitles them to further assistance from NextGen in turning the notions into real and sustainable programs. 

In addition to cup reuse, the categories of competition include Innovative Cup Liners and New Materials, contests with a more technical bent. Winning entries in those fields included cups that are actually gourds grown inside molds that form the living plants into the shape of a cup, and a disposable container that incorporates mushroom spores. The seeds activate after the vessel is discarded, breaking it down as the mushroom feeds on the cup’s other components.

The annual competition is administered by Closed Loop Partners and backed in part by Starbucks, McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Yum Brands, the parent of Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut.

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