Seven million paper coffee cups are tossed out each day in New York City alone. And while reusable cups might seem like an obvious way to keep that trash out of the landfill, it’s tricky to get anyone to actually use them: Starbucks has offered a discount for customers who bring their own reusable tumblers for almost 20 years, but fewer than 2% take advantage.
In April, a group of students came up with a reusable system that might finally replace the single-use cup. Now their solution, a citywide cup-sharing program, has officially launched as a company.
"We looked at why people don’t use reusable cups—they’re inconvenient, bulky, messy, drip in your bag, and there’s the question of what you do with it when you’re finished," says Scott Francisco, founder of Pilot Projects, which worked on the project with the DO School, an international program for social entrepreneurs. "We wanted to reduce or eliminate those concerns."
Their idea: Instead of using your own travel mug, you buy membership in a cup-sharing program. You don’t have to remember to bring a cup when you go to a coffee shop, and you don’t have to carry the cup around with you—when you’re done with the drink, you can just drop the mug off in a collection bin near the subway or at another cafe.
The cup’s lid acts as a membership card, at least for now. "The lid is tricky because you’re putting your lips on it, so we decided to make the lid just yours," Francisco says. "It's also an incentive so people don't hoard five cups in their apartment, since you only have one lid. Eventually we'll track returns with a more comprehensive RFID tagging system."
Since the trial in April, the program's first participating coffee shop, Brooklyn Roasting Company, has doubled the number of reusable cups it has and plans to buy more. "It's worked pretty seamlessly," Francisco says. "They have to wash the cups, but they've been able to handle that. And all of the cups are coming back."
Now, Good to Go is focused on bringing the program to the rest of the city. "We'll expand the low-tech version we tried at Brooklyn Roasting Company first, before we've created the apps and tech that will underpin it later," Francisco says. "Our intention is that it becomes a widely distributed citywide program, so you have multiple places to pick up and drop off. And later we'll expand to other cities as well."
One of the classic symbols of New York is a simple blue-and-white paper coffee cup that used to be ubiquitous at Greek diners. But maybe the city will eventually be known for pioneering a more sustainable to-go cup instead.