Take a reusable coffee mug to go at Berkeley cafés

pouring coffee into Vessel cup
© Vessel Works (used with permission)

But you'd better return it within 5 days or else you'll get fined.

Last fall I wrote about Vessel, the Boulder-based startup that brought reusable stainless steel coffee cups to its local shops. It is a brilliant idea that I hoped would spread quickly and, sure enough, it is expanding. The city of Berkeley, California, has announced a nine-month pilot project using Vessel cups.

As part of a citywide effort to combat single-use disposables, the pilot project is centered around the university campus and Telegraph Avenue in South Berkeley. Eleven coffee shops have signed on so far and will offer stacks of Vessel mugs for customers to choose instead of disposable cups.

It works similarly to a library book. Customers 'check out' a cup by scanning a QR code on the bottom with their smartphone before handing it to the barista. They have five days to return it to any Vessel kiosk or participant restaurant, after which they'll be charged $15 per cup and $2 per silicone lid. It's a hefty enough fine to be a real deterrent (unlike those piddly 25-cent library fines that slowly accumulate over time). The dirty cups are collected by Vessel via bicycle, sanitized, and returned to coffee shops for reuse.

Vessel return kiosk© Vessel Works

According to Martin Bourque of the Ecology Center, this partnership pushes Berkeley toward a "truly reusable economy." He says that 40 million disposable cups are used annually in the city, most of which are not recycled or composted. (It's thought that 1.5 million cups will be eliminated due to this pilot project.) He believes the cups will appeal to customers, not only because of waste reduction but also aesthetic appeal:

"[The cup] is very attractive. It feels good in the hand, and beverages taste good coming out of it. It’s something you would want in your home."

It is refreshing to see a shift toward reusables, as opposed to biodegradable plastics (still not good) and compostables, which tend to be the go-to solutions for many businesses that do not want to disrupt their status quo. But really, what we need to be doing is examining our consumption habits and challenging the tendency to throw away food packaging. Vessel offers a clever way to do that. Requiring only minor behavioral tweaks, this could go a long way toward reducing waste.

Take a reusable coffee mug to go at Berkeley cafés
But you'd better return it within 5 days or else you'll get fined.

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