Why Bringing Reusable Cups to Cafes Hasn’t Taken Off - Public Goods Blog

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Why Bringing Reusable Cups to Cafes Hasn’t Taken Off

Last week I went up to the counter at a cafe I was working at and ordered a second kombucha.

woman holding reusable cup

Now, I did not bring my own water bottle (I usually have one with me). I did, however, bring the cup I’d consumed my first kombucha in.

In compliance with a sign posted next to the register, I received a 10% discount for bringing my own cup. I left the establishment expecting to return, next time with my adorable water bottle. Not only did I enjoy the kombucha, but I felt like the establishment, Clean Market in Midtown Manhattan, was encouraging me to be a more environmentally conscious consumer.

My question was: Why are more stores not doing this? And if they are, why hasn’t it been effective? Why didn’t I know about it?

Starbucks, purveyor of the seemingly omnipresent paper coffee cup, offers a discount. A 10 cent discount will be applied to your drink if you bring either a reusable cup or a competitor’s paper cup. That deal means you cannot pull the same maneuver I did at Clean Market and present a used cup from Starbucks.

If you buy a $5.00 drink, a 10 cent discount doesn’t seem like a big deal. Maybe that’s why we still see so many Starbucks cups; people simply aren’t incentivized by a 2% discount. At least I’m not.

Of course, Starbuck itself is unlikely to increase discounts, because it has so much more to gain from people not using reusable cups. Companies like Starbucks remain industry giants by being constantly on people’s minds through great advertising strategy. And what’s a better advertisement for a cup of coffee than the cup itself?

By contrast, a small, specialized business like Clean Market can offer the 10% discount because they’re not trying to have a caffeinated beverage monopoly. They’re trying to create an exclusive experience (one that includes compostable cups!). By offering and advertising a reusable cup discount, they are reinforcing their mission to foster healthy and transformative lifestyle choices.

But what about companies that aren’t small, focus businesses like Clean Market or monoliths like Starbucks? What about the companies that fall in between?

I brought my reusable hot cup to Le Pain Quotidien, a popular cafe chain distinguishing itself for its product quality. Their staff begrudgingly allowed me to use my own cup, and they charged for a large.

When I asked if I could use my water bottle for kombucha on tap at my neighborhood health food grocer, the cashiers informed me that I could put the kombucha in my water bottle if I measured it out in one of their plastic cups first and then transferred it.

This step defeated the point of a reusable bottle. It also brought to light another complication stores face when offering discounts. Stores that serve different sized beverages (and what store doesn’t?) don’t know what to charge customers with reusable cups because the volumes of reusable cups can vary so widely. Obviously stores don’t want customers being charged the same price for a larger amount of liquid.

However, when I asked about reusable cups at The Bean, a popular New York City coffee franchise, a barista said I would get a 15% discount for using my own cup. Although their incentive encouraged me, I noticed there weren’t any signs up at the shop about the discount, nor was it posted anywhere on the website. I’ve realized many stores have just-ask policies like The Bean.

The problem is large corporations such as Starbucks don’t offer large enough incentives to create real change, and smaller companies are often hesitant to allow the use of reusable cups at all — or are at the very least hesitant to advertise it. In other words, it only benefits a company to offer and advertise such an environmentally conscious incentive if doing so is in the spirit of their brand.

While discount incentives of 10% or 15% might make conscious consumers a bit more interested in carrying reusable cups, both companies and consumers have a lot more work to do to reduce the waste output of the coffee and beverage industry. Perhaps on another measure, a fee for the use of paper and plastic cups — much like the charges imposed on plastic bags in some states — would be more effective in sparking a reusable cup trend than discounts. Until then, hopefully a sense of environmental obligation will motivate a reusable cup movement.

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Comments (13)

  • Why don’t Starbucks and others sell their own reusable cups? That way they would know what the portion size is, and it would still advertise their brand.

      • They do, but I believe saying you must use our (expensive) cups would create more bad will than good, so they are right back to not knowing what to charge.

        • Starbucks also offers an inexpensive plastic that looks just like their disposable one. It’s available (or has been in the past) in Canada.

          The info in this article is confusing, in the same paragraph it says Starbucks gives a 10% discount and will refill other’s cup and then in the same paragraph it says they won’t refill competitors’ cups and give a 2% discount. I believe it needs a few corrections. Thanks!

          • The article is not wrong, it says 10 cent (10c) discount, not 10 percent (10%): 10 cent off the price is ~2%

  • Part of the problem with Starbucks is that their mobile order system doesn’t allow for reusable cups. Busy people then have to make the decision whether the 10 cent discount is worth the extra 5-7 minutes it would take to order in person versus ordering it ahead on a disposable cup. Despite the environmental benefits, it seems that time is a more precious commodity.

    • I agree, the only time I do not bring in my own cup is if I pre-order on the app. Being a very busy person sometimes the app is just easier.

  • My experience in the Toronto area for the past 20 years or so has been that coffee shops all support the reusable cups. Most sell reusable travel mugs with the first fill included in the price of the mug and usually a 10% discount for refills. They will sometimes ask how much it can hold (a med, large, or XL) if it is not one of theirs, but I’ve have never had a shop refuse to fill my reusable cup. I am amazed that more people do not use them, especially in Winter, a re-usable mug is always better insulated than paper.

    • That’s interesting. I think your experience illustrates the difference between focus on sustainability in the U.S. versus Canada.

  • Coffee shops need to be reducing waste, they have a duty to do it. However, I don’t think it’s their responsibility to incentivise customers to bring in their own reusable cups. People should be doing that anyway because we’re all responsible for our waste and reducing it. We should do these things because it’s the right thing to do not because we’ve been incentivised with a discount, and if it’s not enough of a reward we can excuse ourselves for not doing it.

    • The problem is it’s not the waste of the average individual consumer that is the issue. The problem is corporate waste. Large companies are far more responsible for waste production than your average coffee enthusiast. So it is more on the companies to promote the use of reusable cups and reduce their own waste than it is for consumers to collectively just bring their own and force the companies to oblige.

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