Blue Bottle Coffee just announced that it will be doing away with all disposable coffee cups and coffee-bean bags at two pilot locations in the Bay Area in 2020.*
"We are proud to announce an experiment that may not work, that may cost us money, and that may make your life a little more complicated," writes CEO Bryan Meehan in a blog post today. The program, he explains, will involve requiring customers to bring their own reusable mugs, or charging customers a deposit to borrow one, which can then be returned for cleaning and exchanged for another. The one-time deposit will be between $3 and $5.
Coffee beans will only be sold in bulk, and customers will have to bring their own containers to buy them. And the program will only be happening, at first, at an unnamed, as-yet unopened SF cafe, and one existing Blue Bottle location in the East Bay. If the program is successful, the company says it will expand it to more of nearly 70 U.S. locations.
The program echoes one that the City of Berkeley began testing earlier this year, involving the Colorado-based startup Vessel. Under that program, Vessel provides reusable metal mugs and silicone lids to participating coffee shops, and customers enter their credit card information in an app to provide a deposit. Unreturned cups lead to a $15 charge. That pilot program is part of Berkeley's Single-Use Disposable Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance, which was passed in January.
Meehan says that Blue Bottle now goes through 15,000 disposable cups per cafe per month, and that adds up 12 million single-use cups per year. And even though the sugarcane cups and plastic lids the company uses are all compostable, Meehan notes that many end up in landfills anyway because customers through them in the trash — or they live in cities without composting programs.
Blue Bottle wants to be "zero waste" by the end of 2020, which entails diverting 90 percent of its waste from landfills — but that is likely going to mean retaining the compostable cups at many locations.
As Eater notes, the change is likely to mean major cost savings for the company given the rising price of single-use containers made in China. However the move has the potential to impact sales when frustrated customers arrive with no cup or bag, and decide not to make a purchase.
Meehan tells the Chronicle, "There’s a lot of fear that guests are so used to this behavior pattern that they’re going to get really annoyed with us. We’ve got to face the pain and the fear and get on with it.”
The reduction of single-use containers has an added impact beyond just wasted resources ending up in landfills. As Dr. M. Sanjayan of Blue Bottle's sustainability partner, Conservation International, explained in this video series, 30 percent of greenhouse gases are produced in the way we make, consume, and dispose of stuff — and 10 percent of all our discards are single-use containers.
Meehan adds that his three daughters played a role in convincing him to make this bold move toward waste reduction. "They, like their whole generation, are angry and concerned about the health of our planet," he writes. "They have led me to change my weekly grocery-shopping habits, to switch to shampoo and conditioner bars rather than disposable plastic bottles, and to start buying in bulk by using reusable glass bottles."
Blue Bottle was founded in 2002 by James Freeman and launched through farmers' market stands and later a tiny coffee kiosk on Linden Street in Hayes Valley in 2005. The company became emblematic of what's been called "third-wave" coffee, with small-batch roasts and single-pour coffee service, both of which are now common in cities nationwide.
It's still not clear which Bay Area locations will be the first to see disposable cups disappear. But Twitter will surely let us know soon enough.
*Meehan's blog post originally stated that all single-use packaging would be eliminated by the end of 2020, but the company appears to have walked that back and is now saying it will test this at two locations and decide whether to move forward at others.