If you walk into Boxcar Coffee Roasters in Boulder, Colorado and order coffee, you can now use an app to check out a free reusable, insulated, stainless steel mug. The cafe is participating in the beta launch of a new startup, called Vessel Works, that is building a network of shared mugs–not unlike a bikeshare program–that can be checked out at cafes and later returned at kiosks.
It’s an alternative to the billions of paper cups that end up in landfills each year, and a solution that the startup believes can gain adoption more quickly than attempts to ask people to carry their own mugs from home. “Getting behavior change to happen is not an easy thing,” says Dagny Tucker, founder of Vessel. “If we look at a community that’s considered very sustainably-minded, i.e., Boulder, Colorado, you’ll find that in a survey of local cafes, less than 10 people are bringing their own cup every day.”
The startup chose Boulder for its official launch, which is beginning with four cafes and will scale to add more. Consumers use an app to participate in the free system (if someone doesn’t return a mug within five days, they’ll be charged for it). As they use the mugs, they’ll get reports on how much waste they’re preventing and how much they’re trimming their carbon footprint and saving water.
Tucker first ran a pilot of the system in New York City in 2016, where she used to teach at Parsons School of Design. “The paper cup was really the most highly visible sign of disposability I could see,” she says. “Every fifth person walking down the street [in New York] is carrying a paper cup, which they use for a matter of minutes and then throw away.”
The pilot–which she ran for several months at a handful of cafes in Manhattan and Brooklyn, iterating on the design of the system–showed that consumers liked the idea. As they used the mugs, it seemed to also have broader effects. “Our research in New York City demonstrated after a couple of weeks of using Vessel, people began to evaluate all their single-use disposable choices,” she says.
“We’re attempting to disrupt the status quo of an entire industry, essentially,” she says. “And we think that by giving the user immediate feedback on the positive impact they’re having by making a slight behavior change that we’re going to be able to see that turn into larger behavior changes.”
As the system expands–with kiosks to drop off mugs in more locations, such as at transit stations–it will continue to become easier to use. It’s also designed to be simple to use for cafes. “I wanted an intervention that was a win for everyone,” says Dagny. There’s no upfront cost to participate, and the cost that the startup charges the cafes per mug is less, on average, than they pay for paper cups. The containers are easy to stack and store. Vessel cleans the mugs in its own commercial facility, and tracks them to maintain each cafe’s inventory. The startup also sends environmental reports back to the cafes. It’s easier for cafes than a similar system in Freiburg, Germany, where coffee shops have to handle washing mugs themselves. (Others have also experimented with similar systems.)
It may be more challenging to scale up to larger chains, since a company like Starbucks pays so little for paper cups that this would be a more expensive option. But Dagny is already in conversations with other cities that are interested in setting up similar systems.
If the system succeeds, it may be due to the design–both in how the system operates, and the usability of the mug itself. “Being sustainable isn’t a hippie, granola sacrifice,” says Dagny. “Our cups are elegant. They’re highly designed…we’re really pushing a vision of the future of sustainability that that’s beautiful and better.”