Packaging that can be repeatedly cleaned and reused offers a solution that is in many ways simpler than recycling, which hasn’t proven to be a panacea for the world’s waste problem. Despite a rising awareness among consumers and corporations of the problem plastic waste poses to the environment, the vast majority of plastics are not recycled. Of all the plastic waste generated since 2015, only about 9% has been recycled, according to a report by researchers from the University of Georgia and the University of California. That figure casts a shadow over some companies’ efforts to ease the plastic problem by rolling out recyclable options.
Building a better cup
For many restaurants and other foodservice operators, plastic straws became the main focus of packaging sustainability efforts when cities began banning them in 2018. Many stores started doling out straws only upon request or replacing the non-recycleable plastic ones with paper versions. This summer, Starbucks will start a six-city test of new cold cup lids that don’t require a straw. While the polypropylene from which the lids are made can be recycled, only 5.1% of polypropylene was recycled in the US in 2015, according to the most recent data from the Environmental Protection Agency.
In March, shareholder activist group As You Sow called for Starbucks to do more to reduce its environmental impact, including revisiting its earlier goal of making more of its packaging reusable, The Intercept reported.
While the recyclable lids aren’t a perfect solution to the problem of disposable cups, Stabucks is involved in other efforts to address the issue. The coffee chain is a founding partner of the NextGen Cup Challenge, an initiative that aims to find a sustainable alternative to plastic foodservice cups and lids. Many of the top ideas submitted for the challenge focus on disposable cups that are recyclable or compostable, but several ideas also center around reusable cup service models. A company from the UK called CupClub is described as “bike sharing, but for cups.” Consumers can drop off empty cups at collection points, where they are picked up before being cleaned and redistributed.
Colorado-based company Vessel Works also uses the bike-sharing analogy for its cup rental service. The company launched with four coffee shops in Boulder, Colo., last year, and now lists seven participating stores on its website. Consumers sign up for the service using a free app and return used mugs and lids to a participating cafe or return kiosk. There is no up-front fee, but users are charged if they don’t return a cup within five days.
For cafes, the price Vessel charges for each cup is less than what they pay for disposable cups, founder Dagny Tucker told Fast Company. Another perk for foodservice operators is that Vessel tracks the cups to make sure each cafe is stocked and handles the washing of all the cups, so cafes don’t need to factor dishwashing time into their transition away from disposable cups.
Big brands buy into reusable CPG packaging
Foodservice packaging accounts for only a small portion of the trash that ends up in landfills. In fact, paper and plastic waste from foodservice packaging makes up just 1.6% by weight of total municipal solid waste, according to EPA data.
In an effort to reduce packaging waste from consumer packaged goods, New Jersey-based TerraCycle developed a product delivery service based around reusable packaging. TerraCycle will introduce the service, called Loop, later this month in Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. It plans to follow with a September roll-out in London before launching in Canada, Japan, Germany and more US regions in 2020, CBS News reported.
The service, which the company’s website describes as “ the milkman reimagined,” delivers food and household products to consumers in a reusable tote, which is then used to collect empty containers. When the tote is full, users can schedule a pick-up so the packaging can be returned and reused. Several large companies have partnered with Loop to create durable versions of their product packaging. Procter & Gamble will start with brands including Tide and Pantene, and Unilever’s initial participating brands include Dove, Hellmann’s and the personal care brand Love Beauty and Planet.
The model depends on repeated use, so Loop is banking on the idea that offering familiar brands in premium packaging will drive consumers to stick with the service. "It takes five Loop cycles of fill and reuse to be better from an environmental standpoint," Procter & Gamble Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer Virginie Helias told Greenbiz. "We hope [it] can go way beyond that but that's exactly why we are testing in market. It's to validate that assumption."
Consumers take reusable packaging into their own hands
Convenience is a driving factor behind the proliferation of disposable packaging. Getting consumers to carry their own containers to the grocery store, coffee shop or their go-to take-out spot will require a major shift. But for some eco-conscious shoppers, new habits are starting to take hold.
Stores like Package Free Shop and Precycle in New York City cater to shoppers looking to go waste-free with items sold in bulk or in reusable, non-plastic packaging. Website Literless lists grocery stores in every state that sell bulk dry goods and other food items that shoppers can carry home in their own containers.
Carrying containers to the grocery store isn’t a common practice for most shoppers, but reusable grocery bags have become more prevalent, thanks to taxes and bans on plastic bags. Inspired by the bag bans, Berkeley, Calif., announced in January that it will require coffee shops to charge an extra 25-cents for orders in a disposable cup.
A survey of Berkeley residents before the tax was imposed found that 70% said the extra charge would convince them to bring their own cups, Bloomberg reported.
Long before Berkeley introduced the idea of a tax on disposable cups, coffee shops all over the country have offered customers a discount for bringing their own cup. Starbucks, Peet’s Coffee and many other chains give a 10-cent discount for orders in reusable cups.
To help consumers weigh the sustainability of restaurants, and find locations that offer reusable cup discounts, restaurant review site Yelp recently announced that it will start tracking which eateries offer the discount. The site will also ask reviewers to note which restaurants are free of plastic utensils or plastic bags, Skift Table reported.
Most consumers who bring reusable cups to coffee shops are probably driven by concern for the environment, rather than the 10-cent savings. Reusable cups, bottles and straws have become something of a status symbol, giving consumers a way to not only be environmentally friendly, but to exhibit their values in a stylish way. There is a wide range of reusable drinking vessels to choose from, and their popularity is rising. Sales of KeepCup, which offers attractive cups designed in barista-standard sizes, are up 20% year over year, the company’s Jamila Williams told Eater.
Whether consumers bring their reusable containers from home, rent them from a cafe or get them delivered by a grocery service, one thing is certain: Stemming the tide of packaging waste will take a joint effort between companies and consumers.
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