Boulder Embraces a Radical Solution to Disposable Coffee Cups

Vessel cups stacked

Check out an insulated stainless steel mug for free, as you would a library book.

Next time you're walking down a city street, take a moment to notice how many people are carrying disposable coffee cups. A lot, right? It almost seems like an addiction, this compulsion to carry one's drink everywhere, and it comes at a steep environmental cost. An estimated 58 billion cups are thrown in landfill every year in the U.S. alone, impossible to recycle due to their thin plastic lining.

If bringing one's own cup is such an unreliable solution, and if people are too busy to stop for a few minutes and sip coffee out of a ceramic mug, then what's a sustainably-minded coffee shop owner to do?

The city of Boulder, Colorado, is about to prove that there's a better way of doing coffee. It has partnered with a startup called Vessel Works to offer stainless steel insulated mugs in a number of coffee shops across the city. Customers can 'check out' these mugs using an app, get them filled with the drink of their choice, and then leave the coffee shop as they usually would. The dirty mug can be returned to any participating café or to kiosks in other locations, up to five days after use. After that point there's a $15 fine for missing mugs, which are tracked using the app.

Much of the appeal for Vessel Works' model is that coffee shop owners don't have to deal with dirty mugs (unlike the similar mug-share program in Freiburg, Germany, where coffee shops do clean the mugs themselves). In this case they're picked up and cleaned by Vessel Works, and the fee per cup is less than what small shops pay for paper cups. So they'll save money not only on cups, but also on dealing with piles of soggy trash. In fact, the financial benefits could extend to all taxpaying citizens, who pay for municipal garbage collection, and who, in theory, could have lower rates if there were less trash. Vessel Works does not have any upfront participation costs, either.

Reusable is always a better option than disposable, even if it is compostable or recyclable. (Starbucks has been promising the latter for years and not delivering, but it really doesn't address the bigger problem of rampant trash generation and resource consumption.) Stainless steel is a material that's entirely recyclable and does not degrade after any of its life cycles.

Then there's the aesthetic side of things, not to be overlooked. Sipping coffee out of a lovely insulated mug is more pleasant than a paper coffee cup, and if you don't have to pay anything for it, so much the better. Founder Dadny Tucker told FastCo,

"We’re attempting to disrupt the status quo of an entire industry, essentially. And we think that by giving the user immediate feedback on the positive impact they’re having by making a slight behavior change that we’re going to be able to see that turn into larger behavior changes."

pouring coffee into Vessel cup

© Vessel Works (used with permission)

I am excited about this launch, which is starting with four coffee shops in Boulder, with plans for national expansion over the long term. A pilot project that Vessel Works ran in Brooklyn and Manhattan found that people began reevaluating all their single-use habits after a few weeks of using these mugs. That's something the world desperately needs right now.