About 120 billion paper, plastic and foam disposable cups are thrown away each year in the U.S., according to Clean Water Action and the Clean Water Fund. But when was the last time you thought to bring a travel mug to your favorite cafe?
"There are cafes that are frustrated with the problem, but they don't have great alternatives," said Emily Chueh, co-founder of Okapi Reusables, a reusable cup startup that's working with the San Mateo County Office of Sustainability to help restaurants cut their reliance on single-use plastics for takeout beverages. Okapi Reusables began last year in Portland, where about 20 cafes are now participating in the reusable cup program.
Some cafes do offer bring-your-own cup programs, but even then it's a small proportion of people who actually remember to bring their own cups, Chueh said.
Through Okapi Reusables, customers pay a $10 one-time fee and download an app. They scan a QR code at the counter of participating cafes and are then able to check out one of the Okapi reusable cups behind the counter to take home for two weeks. Some cafes give discounts to people who borrow the reusable cups; Urban Ritual, for example, offers 20% off.
Okapi has received a $16,000 grant from the county's Office of Sustainability to build out its program at local cafes and boba shops. So far, the program has launched at four locations in San Mateo: 3 Bees Coffee, Urban Ritual, Meet Fresh and Heere Tea. Shops in Half Moon Bay will be added soon.
This process is aimed at making it simpler for both restaurant workers and patrons to work with reusable dishes, said Chueh.
"This is a way to make it a little bit easier for customers who didn't plan to go to the cafe that day," she said. "They have a clean cup waiting for them at the cafe already."
The program offers two types of cups: an insulated stainless steel cup for hot drinks and a transparent borosilicate glass cup for iced drinks and boba. Iced drinks, Chueh said, account for about 75% of the drinks now sold at Starbucks.
Cups are provided to cafes at no upfront cost, with fees based on the number of cups borrowed and generally less than the cost of disposable cups. They come in standard beverage sizes of 8, 12, and 16 ounces, and they're accessible behind the counter.
"Cafes appreciate there is a way to do this that fits within their operations," she said.
While the program is still growing, there are customers who say they've already saved the equivalent of about 100 disposable cups.
"We're really still used to buying something and then using it and throwing it away," she said. "We're introducing a new concept: a circular system."
The conversion will take time, Chueh expects, but she points to other places that have successful reusable takeout programs to assert that it's possible. The Green Caffeen brand in Australia operates a similar model with coffee cups and now has about 765 participating cafes, and Suppli in Toronto offers a similar model with reusable takeout food containers.
"For the most part," she said, "people take time to change habits."
Countywide efforts to cut throwaway plastic
Okapi Reusables' program is one of several initiatives that San Mateo County's Office of Sustainability has taken on to help restaurants cut disposable plastic use.
Last October, laws passed by most cities in San Mateo County took effect to curb restaurants' reliance on single-use plastic. The effort is two-pronged: For dine-in meals, restaurants must offer customers washable reusable dishware – generally, dishes made of metal, ceramic or glass; and for takeout meals, they must offer fiber-based compostable food containers. Plastic food containers, including technically compostable bioplastics and polystyrene foodware like Styrofoam, are not allowed. In addition, disposable silverware should be dispensed one at a time and only upon request and should not be bundled.
Communities that are not yet participating include Woodside, Menlo Park, Portola Valley and East Palo Alto, while Redwood City's ordinance won't take effect until October.
The county's "Foodware Aware" initiative has been focused largely on educating and supporting food facilities to make needed changes rather than enforcement, said Christopher Slafter, senior sustainability specialist.
"Our mission here is to reduce or eliminate single-use foodware pollution wherever possible," Slafter said. According to street trash surveys, he said, the bulk of single-use plastic pollution comes from foodware items, which can contaminate stormwater, beaches, oceans and compost streams.
The county has contracted with consultants to alert restaurants about the new policies and is offering a mini-grant program in which food facilities can receive up to $300 to buy accepted compostable takeout containers or washable, durable and reusable foodware for dine-in meals. Food facilities owned by Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC), LGBTQIA+ individuals or employee-owned facilities can receive double those funds for up to $600.
Right now, there is still room for a couple more cafes or boba shops to sign up with Okapi Reusables, said Collette Sanchez, a sustainability specialist working with the county's Foodware Aware program. "There's a lot of interest for coastal cities because of their proximity to the ocean and the waterways," she said.
"We've put a real focus into doing the heavy lifting up front so we don't just tell a food facility ‘We would like you to make these changes,'" Slafter said. "Rather, we thought ahead of all the things that might be a challenge for you and we will present these resources."