Blue Bottle Cafes Will Be Zero Waste by the End of 2020

CC BY 2.0. Blue Bottle Coffee

Realizing that recycling isn't working, the chain will be eliminating single-use cups and coffee bags.

The modern American coffee shop is really in a bind. Consumers accustomed to convenience and a disposable lifestyle want their coffee to go – but a sustainable solution for that desire has been hard to come by. Unless a paper cup is lined with some type of plastic coating, hot coffee will turn the cup into a soggy mess. At best, in terms of disposables, bioplastics can be composted – but they require industrial composting and thus, mostly end up in landfills.

The solution to this fiasco is both simple and complicated: Don't offer single-use cups anymore. Be like Italian coffee shops and offer customers coffee in a proper cup from which they can drink on the spot. And/or, get in the swing of a reusable cup option. The complicated part is convincing the consumer (and shareholders) that this is a great idea.

What we need is a cultural shift, away from the Convenience Industrial Complex and towards reusablity. But it's a tricky learning curve because it needs to start with the coffee shops; and what kind of coffee shop is going to take the risk of losing customers because they no longer offer single-use cups?

Well, thankfully, there are some grown-ups in the room and some coffee shops are taking the plunge. We are seeing more and more local independent shops and cafes implementing reusable cup programs. And now Blue Bottle Coffee has announced upcoming changes on a pretty big scale, and it feels like the beginning of a new era.

The chain currently uses some 12 million cups per year, Blue Bottle CEO Bryan Meehan explains in a letter posted on the company website. In describing the horrific problem of single-use packaging, Meehan writes, "we’re not afraid to admit that we’re part of the problem." They tried bioplastic cups and straws, went a step further to paper straws and sugarcane-paper cups – but he says that it is still not enough.

What to do? He says that by the end of 2020, all of the chain's US cafes will be zero waste – which according to Zero Waste International Alliance, means at least 90 percent of their waste is diverted from landfill. And they will also begin testing a zero-single-use-cup program in the San Francisco Bay Area.

He writes, "You can bring your own cup, or use one of ours. We will provide a beautiful cup that will require a modest deposit, which you can return to the cafe for cleaning. We’ll also sell our whole-bean coffees in bulk instead of single-use bags and our grab-and-go items in reusable containers. This pilot will help guide us on how to implement this program nationwide."

Interestingly, in 2017 Nestlé acquired a 68 percent stake of Blue Bottle. And while the chain has remained a stand-alone company under Meehan's leadership, it's still notable to see this kind of initiative taking shape under the Nestlé umbrella. "Our role at Blue Bottle is to inspire Nestlé to do more," says Meehan.

Of the announcement, Greenpeace USA Plastics Campaigner Kate Melges said, “Blue Bottle’s commitment is significant because it not only tackles the issue of single-use plastics, it strikes a blow to our throwaway culture as a whole. Blue Bottle is right – we are not going to recycle our way out of this pollution crisis, and swapping in bioplastic or paper alternatives will only exacerbate other environmental destruction. To truly make a difference for both people and planet, we need more companies to move toward systems of reuse or package-free options as Blue Bottle has.”

“This commitment puts direct pressure on Nestlé to do more to end its reliance on single-use plastics," Melges adds. "Blue Bottle and other companies that Nestlé owns a stake in should continue to pressure the consumer goods giant to show real leadership by eliminating single-use plastics immediately. Our oceans, waterways, and communities are depending on it.”

Meehan admits that the decision will "wreak havoc" on every aspect of the pilot cafe’s operations.

"We expect to lose some business. We might fail. We know some of our guests won’t like it – and we’re prepared for that," he says.

"But the time has come to step up and do difficult things," he adds. "It’s our responsibility to the next generation to change our behavior. It’s all hands on deck."

Hey Starbucks, are you listening?