In a quest to cut down on packaging waste and the toll it takes on the planet, more foodservice and consumer packaged goods companies are beginning to consider reusable containers. 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.