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Can a Better Reusable Coffee Cup Finally Replace Disposables?

KeepCups and their ilk are sleeker and more user-friendly than their predecessors — but paper coffee cups are dying hard

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When Kerry Diamond took over full ownership of Brooklyn coffee shop Smith Canteen in April 2018, she realized she had to do something about the shop’s paper and plastic consumption, much of it due to single-use products.

“It dawned on me how much, as a small coffee shop, we were contributing to the waste stream,” she said. (Disclosure: Diamond is also the editor in chief of the food magazine Cherry Bombe, for which I have written.) “And it kind of horrified me. Every time I would walk in the back and look at [the shelving] filled with plastic stuff that was being thrown out, I just thought, I’m either going to have to shut this shop down or make some serious changes.”

To help stanch the single-use issue, Smith Canteen began promoting its 10 percent “BYOC” (bring your own cup) discount and selling two kinds of reusable cups. One is Stojo, a tall, collapsible silicone cup with a straw. The other is the KeepCup, a “barista standard” cup designed by a pair of Australian cafe owners. KeepCups are built to mirror traditional lidded to-go cups in both shape and size (the medium contains 12 ounces, same as a Starbucks “tall”). They come in plastic or in sleek glass, and each has a signature grippy band hugging its squat midsection.

According to Jamila Williams, sales and business development manager for KeepCup, the company’s sold a little over 1.1 million of its products in the U.S. since entering the market in 2013. While KeepCups are popular in Australia and the U.K., adoption in the U.S. has been a bit slower, until recently: Sales are up 20 percent year over year, and they can now be found at Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters, not to mention Amazon.

KeepCups have also captured the attention of a certain slice of the food world. A Bon Appetit editor recently wrote an ode to her KeepCup, noting that “each aspect is designed perfectly.” More noticeably, more coffee shops in the U.S. are starting to sell branded glass KeepCups, including big chains like La Colombe and Aussie institution Bluestone Lane; small ones like Brew Haha! in Delaware; and independent shops like Miami’s All Day and Smith Canteen.

Anecdotally, it’s part of a larger trend of coffee shops stocking their shelves with reusables for purchase, in the hopes of converting their devoted customers to a more sustainable method of consumption (and maybe earning some extra revenue along the way). Joco cups, also from Australia, with a similar look to KeepCups, can be found in coffee shops scattered across the States. Toby’s Estate in New York, Portland-based Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Oakland-born Blue Bottle Coffee, and Go Get Em Tiger in LA sell logo’ed Miir Mugs, an insulated “camp-style” mug. Allie Cope, who manages and trains Blue Bottle’s cafe teams in the Bay Area, said that its blue Miir mugs now outsell its traditional ceramic mugs.

The trend toward nicer-looking reusables is also evident in retail; take, for example, this glazed smiling mug with a rubber lid created by artist Debbie Carlos in collaboration with online boutique Of a Kind. In short, there seems to be more new reusable coffee cups floating around — and many are more attractive than your typical “travel mugs.”

But patterns are hard to change and paper cups are dying hard. The paper coffee cup has long been a timestamp of the morning, a symbol of a certain kind of harried success. Yes, everything is nuts, it conveys, clutched firmly in your commuting hands, but I will cling to this paper life ring (or I might cry into it). Logo’ed paper cups are also a way to broadcast brand allegiance, not to mention one’s socioeconomic class. The lids often drip annoyingly and sometimes the entire thing disintegrates, but they have become synonymous with surviving the work day.

For nearly a century, that was enough for people to ignore their enormous environmental impact. It’s estimated that Americans dump 50 billion paper coffee cups into the trash each year; most of the cups can’t be recycled, due to their polyethylene lining. Starbucks alone is responsible for an estimated 6 billion cups around the globe. While some cafes might have switched to compostables, even composting cups might not be as easy as it seems. And disposable cup use generally is actually rising in the United States.

It’s not like alternatives to paper or plastic to-go cups haven’t existed. Reusable to-go mugs have been around for ages, most of them oversized and crafted from flimsy plastic or steel, in Thermos form. Many of us have one (or several) lingering somewhere in our kitchen cabinets, a freebie emblazoned with an organization’s logo (probably similar to the Queens Library to-go mug congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was recently photographed carrying). But such so-called travel mugs, with their big size and lack of aesthetic appeal (and the slightly lingering aftertastes they impart), haven’t become habit for most. When it comes to America’s coffee-drinking culture, paper has persisted.

But of course, cultural habits can change. Styrofoam is now universally regarded as damaging and is subject to bans, many people have become less hooked on plastic bags, and 2018 saw the rise of plastic straw bans (and the advent of trendy reusable straws). When it comes to paper cups, it will likely take a combination of policy and corporate changes to create a real culture shift. The city of Berkeley, for example, recently passed a 25-cent tax on disposable cups. Cup-share programs are popping up, like Boulder’s Vessel, a network of cafes with cups customers can borrow and later return.

Local coffee shops and chains alike are offering discounts for customers who bring their own cups, aka BYOC (though skeptics say that a 10-cent discount at Starbucks isn’t enough to create real momentum around mug-hauling). Says Ramos about All Day’s policy, “We give loyalty reward points only to for-here drinks, not to-go. And if you [get a to-go drink] in one of our KeepCups, you get double the reward points.”

“People are looking to brands like us to lead the way,” said Jai Lott, senior director of strategic projects for Bluestone Lane, which has been using KeepCups since Bluestone opened its first shop in 2015. Lott says the growing Australian coffee chain will have 70 stores by the end of the year, which will increase the environmental impact it can have, and it’s rolling out an as-yet-unannounced incentive in the next few months that will encourage customers to bring their own vessels.

Bluestone Lane’s corporate efforts align with policy ones. In 2018, an Australian parliamentary committee recommended a ban on various single-use items, including coffee cups. The U.K. has also seen policy movement, including a debate last summer over a “latte levy” tax on single-use paper coffee cups; when it failed to pass, Starbucks instituted its own levy at its U.K. locations.

Diamond said she checked out Australian cafes on Instagram when she was establishing best practices for Smith Canteen. She decided to promote the cafe’s already-existing 10 percent BYOC discount on social media. She also posted “green” updates on Instagram, including the growing numbers of cups saved and pictures of customers holding their branded mugs and KeepCups. Last year, she said, the BYOC discount was used 3,184 times, up significantly from 2017.

Yet, while it feels like something’s brewing, KeepCups and their ilk aren’t the metal straws of 2019 — yet. Ramos cited the “cleaning and remembering” as two barriers for people not bringing their own mugs more frequently. Then there’s the matter of buying a cup you actually want to reuse. KeepCups are proving to be a popular (and meme-worthy) option, perhaps the one that comes to define the category like S’well bottles did a few years back. But there are more on the market, a new generation of reusables that work for the way people actually drink coffee — hot or iced, and not necessarily gallons at a time — and avoid splashes, spills, or sweats.

“There are so many options now [for] reusable cups, but people are still looking for some advice and some expertise,” Diamond said. “A lot of us are looking to make changes in every aspect of our life, and you don’t want to go out and buy just any cup — because you buy the wrong cup, and you have more stuff in your house that you just have to get rid of.”