Seattle's Holy Grail: reducing single-use cups
Seattle Public Utilities is partnering with local businesses to encourage reusable beverage containers. The goal is to keep those cups in use, and out of the landfill.
While some to-go cups are recyclable or compostable, city officials say washing and reusing a cup is the best environmental option. The city already launched partnerships for reusable cups at concert venues like the Showbox and Zoo Tunes, and at beer gardens like at the recent Northwest Folklife Festival.
Now they’re venturing into local coffee shops, which has different challenges, because people at a concert venue or beer garden tend to drink their beverage on-site so it's easy to drop the empty cup in a dedicated bin. Coffee shop patrons want to take their drink with them wherever they’re going.
Jack Gralla is the product operations manager for the company reusables.com, which is just entering the Seattle market after creating a network of reusable and returnable cups and food containers in Vancouver, B.C.
Customers at a handful of cafes in Seattle can tap their credit card at the register to get one of the company’s stainless steel travel cups for free.
Gralla said they’ve found that offering the cups for free makes customers more willing to try the system, compared to older setups like glass Coke bottles that required a deposit.
“When they hear ‘free,’ they’re like, ‘Yeah, sure, I’ll give that a shot.’ So that’s a big reason,” he said.
The cup is free as long as customers return it to the special bin in any participating business within 14 days. After that, customers are charged a $15 replacement fee for the travel mug, but that fee is refunded if they bring the cup back within 45 days.
At Tailwind Café on Capitol Hill, Noreen Shahani took her drink in one of the steel mugs, which she’ll return when she’s finished with her errands nearby. She said an added benefit is the mug keeps her coffee hotter than a paper cup.
“It wasn’t too out of my way today, and I do like really hot coffee," she said.
McKenna Morrigan, strategic advisor for waste prevention with Seattle Public Utilities, said her agency and the city’s Office of Economic Development want to help businesses make the transition to reusables.
“We know this is such an important transition for our community,” she said, “we’re offering up to $500 in a rebate to each location to help cover the costs of making the switch from single-use to reusable cups and containers.” They have $225,000 in dedicated funding for rebates over the next two years.
Beyond that, restaurants could face a charge to participate in the system. The hope is they won’t have to buy as many disposable cups.
“Store owners get it, they don’t like having all the waste themselves either,” Gralla said. “We’re starting with coffee and tea because it’s pretty high volume, high turnover and it lets us iterate and learn really quickly and figure out the best way to do this. All re-use programs globally are pretty new.”
Gralla said his company also offers stainless steel takeout containers in Vancouver, B.C., and hopes to have them in Seattle by the end of this year.
Morrigan said the utilities' new public awareness campaign will also encourage people to bring their own personal travel mugs back to coffee shops. Many shops discontinued that practice during the pandemic, but Morrigan said filling personal mugs is safe, and state regulations have been updated to reflect that.
It’s all part of the agency's new Reuse Seattle initiative.
“We are hosting a map that can show folks where reuse is in action, including the cafes that have committed to participating in accepting personal cups from customers," Morrigan said.
That map will also identify businesses and venues that offer reusable cups to go.