Reusable Cups Are Slowly Returning to Coffee Shops

Good hygiene and contact-free serving systems make them perfectly safe.

reusable coffee mug

Getty Images/aldomurillo

Reusable cups are finally making a comeback in coffee shops across the United States and Canada. Years of campaigning to reduce single-use waste were threatened by the arrival of the coronavirus a year ago, as businesses pivoted rapidly to using disposables in an attempt to prevent transmission of the virus, but now business owners and customers alike are feeling ready to reintroduce reusables once again.

Much was unknown about the virus last winter, which made the switch to disposables understandable. But health experts have since said that the virus "spreads primarily from inhaling aerosolized droplets, rather than through contact with surfaces," and using basic soap-and-water hygiene is the best line of defense. A statement issued last summer said that complying with food handling rules and offering contact-free systems for customers was "more than adequate protection against virus transmission." Wearing personal protective equipment and social distancing was also recommended.

There's also growing concern about the quantity of plastic waste being generated – a health hazard in itself. FoodPrint reports that Americans use an estimated 120 billion disposable cups every year. "Replacing just one disposable cup per day would save 23 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions, 281 gallons of water and keep 16 pounds of solid waste from going to the landfill each year." Those numbers alone are a strong incentive to get back on track with reusables.

Food Tank cites Dr. John Nwangwu, epidemiology professor and consultant to the World Health Organization, who said serving coffee in reusable cups is safe, as long as COVID-19 safety protocols are followed.

"'I see global [plastic] pollution as a frightening health issue,' Nwangwu tells Food Tank. He believes that reducing the spread of COVID-19 is a priority, but plastic pollution and material waste also pose an ominous and ongoing risk to public health."
Starbucks reusable cup
Starbucks has figured out a way to allow reusable cups in EU, Middle East and Africa.

Starbucks EMEA

The contact-free systems recommenced by health experts are simple and sensible, and there is good reason to expect them to continue beyond the pandemic. Last August Starbucks introduced a cup-in-a-cup system in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, but not yet in North America. Customers place their reusable cup inside a larger ceramic one so that the drink can be made without the barista ever touching the reusable. 

In my local cafés I've watched baristas pour drinks into reusable cups from stainless steel pitchers. (More frustrating is when the drink gets poured from a disposable cup, which then gets tossed, defeating the purpose.) People can also fill their own cups at regular coffee dispensers. Although I haven't seen it myself, I wonder if serving coffee in store-owned ceramic mugs could be another option, although it would have to be drunk on the spot or outdoors, then returned for sanitization. Still, I know I'd be willing to do that, and I'm sure other waste-conscious individuals would be, too.

coffee shop visit
Using my reusable mug at local coffee shop.

K Martinko

Nicole Grossberg, founder of Zero Waste NYC Workshop, which teaches people how to live more sustainably, has put together an interactive map that shows all coffee shops allowing reusable cups in New York City. Treehugger reached out to ask how she dealt with the disposables-only rule over the past few months.

"At the height of the pandemic I didn't order takeout or coffee or anything that required single-use. However, I found a few hidden gems in my neighborhood that would accept my reusables. Some even sanitized the cup for me! There are ways to get creative with this. For example, the local shop around the corner from my apartment puts my coffee order in one of their large milk frothers and then pours it directly into my cup, never having to touch it. I made the suggestion for that process and continue to do that wherever I go. If the shop I'm visiting doesn't comply, they won't get my business."

Grossberg hopes that her new map will bring more business to coffee shops allowing reusables and encourage others to get on board. "That's what I want for sustainability — for businesses who support it to see more success and return on investment, which will in turn make them value sustainability more."

She'd like New Yorkers to go to these shops and show their support. "I know it's not realistic to think a business, especially during COVID, is going to prioritize being more sustainable over paying their rent and employees, but if we can create VALUE in sustainable practices, that's a win-win for people AND planet!"

It may feel like a small drop in the bucket (er, coffee cup) at this point, but seeing Grossberg's map is exciting – a sign that the times are slowly but surely returning to normal. Despite the discouraging year, she maintains a sense of hopefulness:

"It's definitely been disappointing to see the regression back to single-use because of bad information and fear [about virus transmission on surfaces], but the silver lining is that the sustainability community has really come together during this time. We also have a new administration that acknowledges and understands the urgency of climate change, so I'm confident that the next four years are going to be a huge step in the right directions to net zero."

You can show your support for waste reduction by taking a reusable cup the next time you go to a coffee shop; and if it's not at that stage yet, kindly ask management to consider allowing reusables once again. There's no reason not to, and many reasons to do so.