On a Monday morning in downtown San Francisco, the Blue Bottle on Second Street, like all Blue Bottles (and Starbucks and Peet’s and Dunkin’ and independent coffee shops everywhere), is packed. People sitting at blond-wood counters with coffee in paper cups capped with plastic lids, even though ceramic for-here cups are available. People standing in line empty-handed, waiting to pick up paper cups capped with plastic lids. People walking out the door—myself included—clutching paper cups capped with plastic lids, headed to meetings, to the bus, to stare into their MacBooks.
It’s an everyday ritual as routine as brushing our teeth. But it’s about as endangered as the planet itself. America’s harried, to-go coffee culture has contributed, in its own significant way, to the climate crisis. Which means: our coffee culture has to change.
Apart from the absurdity of dashing around town—walking and talking, driving and biking, strollering and scootering—armed with a paper cup like an extra appendage, there’s this even less civilized offense: we cavalierly toss 16 billion of these cups a year.
Vanessa Pope, cofounder of the new Oakland-based nonprofit For Here, Please, which aims to eliminate single-use plastic, puts it like this: “You’re using something for 15 minutes that will stay in the environment for, like, 600 years.” Contrary to what most well-intentioned coffee customers think, the vast majority of paper cups are actually lined with polyethylene, a material that makes them liquid-proof—but also too difficult and too expensive to properly recycle.
Suddenly, it seems, we’re waking up to more than coffee. A handful of independent cafés, from Los Angeles to Portland, began banning paper cups last year, charging deposits for mason jars, and offering BYOC discounts. As of January 1, beverage drinkers in Berkeley have to pay an additional 25 cents for a disposable cup. San Francisco supervisor Aaron Peskin recently introduced legislation to do the same. Celebrity chef Dominique Crenn will open her new café at San Francisco’s Salesforce Tower this summer—sans disposable cups altogether. And given their 2018 bans on plastic straws, Santa Monica, Malibu, and Manhattan Beach are bound to be next.
The BYOC movement’s biggest news yet, though, came in December, when Blue Bottle—whose 70 U.S. locations go through some 12 million disposable cups a year—announced a test program to dispose of the practice at two cafés in the Bay Area. During the pilot, customers at these locations will need to buy, or put down a deposit for, a Blue Bottle–branded reusable cup. (Or, of course, bring their own from home.)
Otherwise, if they want a latte without paying a penny more than the $6 they already do, they’ll have to—oh, the horror!—sit and sip and stay a little while. You know, like the Italians do.
“Our coffee behavior tells you about Americans’ daily lives,” says Steve Wickwire, owner of Wooden Coffeehouse in San Francisco’s Cole Valley neighborhood. Most of his customers dash in and out for drinks in disposable cups. Still, over the past few months, more regulars have been handing him reusable ones to fill.
Such cups have come a long way since their barely insulated, BPA-filled, never-quite-clean-enough, sippy-style-travel-mug days. Blue Bottle carries half a dozen “design-driven” options, including a $27 Miir mug and a $16 ECoffee Cup, made from bamboo and cornstarch, that looks just like Blue Bottle’s to-go cup. It’s a big seller.
Persephone Bakery in Wilson, Wyoming, offers a seasonal glass KeepCup, covered in snowflakes and sporting the motto “Let It Snow,” for $32, free latte included. But the cup next to it is the one that, the barista says, has been flying off the shelves: an Alexa-looking cylinder called Ember, it costs $180 and lets you control the temperature of your coffee from your phone. (Wait, why?)
All this reusable-cup excitement is good and admirable and necessary—but there is, for me, one niggly thing: the cup only works if I remember to lug it around with me.
“The thing that needs to be invented,” says Wickwire, “is an industry-standard option—an interchangeable cup you see everywhere.”
Hold on: turns out, it has been invented! A stainless steel beauty that keeps coffee drinks hot (and pressed juices cold) and is as easy—and as free—to borrow as a library book. A cup that isn’t cleaned by customers or the café but, rather, is collected by bicycle-pedaling workers, sanitized, then redistributed.
The company behind this service is Vessel Works, founded by Dagny Tucker and currently operating in small areas of Berkeley and Boulder. If all goes well, its stainless steel cups will eventually be in coffee shops from Burbank to Boise to Brooklyn.
How does it work? Pick up a cappuccino-filled Vessel at your local coffee shop; take it with you to your meeting, to the bus, or to wherever you go to stare into your MacBook; return the dirty cup at any participating café or kiosk; grab a new, clean cappuccino-filled Vessel; repeat.
Imagine if, instead of a white-and-green paper-and-polyethylene cup, every Starbucks in America gave out a venti-size Vessel. And then you gave it back.
Totally doable. If we’re willing to share homes and bikes and Balenciaga blouses, we should be able to come around to swapping something as mundane as…coffee cups.
Rachel Levin is the author of Look Big: And Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds and the coauthor of Eat Something: A Wise Sons Cookbook for Jews Who Like Food and Food Lovers Who Like Jews, published in March. She wrote about lab-grown meat for Alta, Fall 2019.