If We’re Sharing Everything Else, Why Not Our Coffee Cups?

A simple fix for cutting down on New York’s enormous waste stream of to-go coffee cups involves returning your cup when you’re done.

Every day, New Yorkers stop by their local coffee shops and ask for a cup to go. The next day, same thing. And the next and the next.


There’s only one problem with this pattern. If you zoom out to take a look at the giant churning ant farm that is the city, those plastic-lined paper cups turn into a millions-strong waste stream, most of which gets trucked into landfill in other states. (Here you go, Pennsylvania!) This isn’t cheap. But so far, it hasn’t changed.

And yet it could. Earlier this week, a team of social good entrepreneurs launched a cup-sharing pilot program in DUMBO, a cute and highly expensive cobblestone neighborhood in Brooklyn. The DO School, a 10-week international social good program, partnered with the Brooklyn Roasting Company to roll out 500 ceramic cup-share mugs. Instead of buying a disposable cup each day, coffee-drinkers have been picking up their bright blue mugs from the Brooklyn Roasting Company and returning used ones to be washed and sanitized the following day.

“The regular single-use cup costs about 15 cents, which is quite a significant number,” says DO School CEO Katherin Kirschenmann. “Even that location in DUMBO, they go through a thousand cups a day. Think about a midtown Starbucks. Cutting down those costs is actually a pretty big incentive.”

It’s a big incentive for New Yorkers, too. Bring in a cup-share mug, and it’s 25 cents off the price of coffee. For a city of shameless caffeine addicts, that’s not a bad deal.

But while the DO School’s cup-share pilot has garnered a lot of Citi Bike comparisons (blue, New York, sharing stuff, etc.), cups do differ from bikes in one major psychological way: Hygiene. So far, it appears that sharing bike seats and handlebars somehow seems far less gross than sharing cups.

“We’re very used to sharing plates and cups in restaurants, but not so much for our to go items,” Kirschenmann says. “On the positive end, one of the major lessons that surprised us is how aware people are of the problem, and how open they were to participate in it. We got a lot of thank yous.”


That said, several university campuses have implemented successful takeout box programs over the last few years. Portland also has its own reusable takeout program. And if New Yorkers are willing to breathe all over each other and clamp onto metal poles touched by thousands of people a day in subway cars, we could probably get over the mental hurdle of reusable cups. We are a resilient people.

According to Kirschenmann, the Brooklyn Roasting Company will be exploring continuing the cup-sharing pilot in more sizes, while the DO school talks to the city about securing private sponsors. If Citi Bike can do it, why can’t cups?


About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.