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Can Cities Find A Way To Stop Using Disposable Coffee Cups?

In Freiburg, Germany, a subscription service lets you take a cup from any participating cafe.

If you buy a cup of coffee to go in downtown Freiburg, Germany, you can choose to get it in a reusable cup. Ten or 15 minutes later, you can drop the cup off in a bin at a different café, where it will be washed and reused.

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The new “Freiburg Cup” was sponsored by the city, which gave the cups and bins to a network of independent cafes. Customers pay a small deposit, which they get back when they return the cups.

“We think it is a good solution for customers who forget their own cup,” says Renate Heyberger, a manager at a Freiburg student center with a participating cafe. The cafe already gives discounts to anyone who brings a reusable mug, but that incentive–like similar discounts at Starbucks and elsewhere–hasn’t fully solved the problem.

Freiburg estimates that the city’s coffee-drinkers use 12 million disposable cups each year. In Germany as a whole, the number may be closer to 3 billion.

A barista at another local cafe estimates that about 30% of customers are using the new cups, because they only come in one size so far and many people want to order bigger drinks. “If they make a bigger one, we could change completely,” says Jamila Saoudi, who works at a restaurant called Café Aspekt. “It’s a good idea. It’s more work, but less waste.”

Some other cities are testing similar ideas. In Hamburg, a coffee roaster called El Rojito launched the Refill It! program, which offers reusable cups that can be washed and used between 75 and 150 times. “The first customers were totally enthusiastic,” says Roman Witt from El Rojito. El Rojito no longer offers disposable cups at all, and now a network of a dozen cafes is using the new cups as well.

In New York City, a similar idea called Good To Go was tested in 2014 as part of a challenge posed by the city government. It didn’t go beyond a pilot, however.

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“Back then, [the city] had decided not to implement the solution on a wider scale as they saw it as a solution that had the best potential for success if it became a private sector initiative and we thus spread the knowledge via a media campaign,” says Katerin Kirschenmann, chief program officer for The Do School, the innovation lab that hosted the entrepreneurs that worked on the Brooklyn pilot.

Since that pilot, the Do School has advised other cities and entrepreneurs on launching new programs. They think it’s a viable solution.

“One of the core findings when creating Good to Go was that people would not use reusables–even though many own one–for two reasons,” says Kirschenmann. “One, they forget it at home, and two, they find it inconvenient to carry the mug around all day–especially men who often don’t have a purse to carry it. With refillable cup systems you provide the perfect answer to both those problems.”

[Photos: Peter Bauer]

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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