As Oregon cafes have embraced take-out orders to keep their businesses afloat during the pandemic, consumption of non-recyclable cardboard, paper and single-use plastics has soared.
Oregon is no stranger to reusable initiatives. There’s GoBox, the reusable take-out box used by restaurants in the city. Fred Meyer, owned by Kroger, is piloting a reusable container program in the Portland area.
But what about reusable cups for coffee to go?
OKAPI Reusables, a “cup borrowing” company founded by Emily Chueh and Deb Gray, provides independent beverage suppliers and customers with reusable and returnable take-out cups.
Instead of a cafe’s standard paper or compostable cups, drinks are served in insulated stainless steel cups that customers can take with them. A smartphone app keeps track of who has borrowed a mug.
For customers, it costs a one-time fee of $10 and 25 cents to borrow a cup afterward. Customers have two weeks to return the cup and lid to a trash can inside any participating Portland-area cafe. (There is a $15 late fee if not returned within the two week window.)
Cafes also pay OKAPI a small fee, comparable to the cost of a disposable cup and lid, for each cup borrowed. Cafes wash and sanitize cups returned between customers.
Cheuh, who visited the Philippines the year before the pandemic, recalled how the pristine beaches she visited had to be cleaned every morning by resort workers of plastic debris that had washed up overnight . The image stayed with her.
And when the pandemic hit, Cheuh and Gray saw the use of disposable containers skyrocket.
So they dove into the search for solutions to plastic pollution. They were inspired, they said, by programs that promoted reusable containers elsewhere in the world, including Australia, New Zealand, much of Europe and Canada.
Reusable items in cafes aren’t exactly new. Coffee drinkers have for years – with a hiatus in many cafes during the pandemic – brought their own cups to fill.
But Gray said his company’s service is complementary.
“If everyone brought their own cup, we wouldn’t be doing this,” she said. “People forget their own cups, even when they intend to bring them. We all forget. With our service, the cups are there, ready when you are.
OKAPI started with a 30-day pilot program last November and officially launched in January.
Since then, 11 cafes have signed up to use OKAPI cups, including Clinton Street Coffeehouse, Tiny Moreso, Lolo Pass and Vivienne Kitchen & Pantry.
Recycling Advocates estimates that approximately 50 million single-use cups go to both landfill and trash each year in the Portland metro. And less than 5% of people bring their own mugs or cups for coffee, even before the pandemic.
To date, OKAPI has kept 1,000 cups out of the landfill. And he hopes that number will increase quickly.
OKAPI plans to recruit more neighborhood cafes this year, with the goal of getting 20% or more local cafes on board. (They’re also surveying cafe owners and boba fans to see if they can bring reusable cups to bubble tea cafes.)
But to fuel this growth and expand to other cities, OKAPI hopes to gain support from regional governments and corporate sponsorships.
With thousands of cups in circulation, making sure every cafe is properly stocked becomes a challenge.
The company’s app tracks the number of people checking cups at each location, and cup movement data can help detect if a cafe has too few or too many, and move cups around as needed. .
The project is also a bit of a social experiment, to see if the habit of reusable cups will stick. So far, says OPAKI, many of its users have become loyalists. Some have used the service more than 40 times since signing up, usually at the same cafes.
Regular users also tend to bring cups and lids back within days rather than waiting the full two weeks, the company found, so the cups circulate quickly.
Many participating cafes offer discounts on drinks served in reusable cups, whether brought from home or through OKAPI, which offsets the 25-cent rental fee.
Clinton Street Coffeehouse also added a 25-cent surcharge on drinks served in disposable cups. Since then, they have seen the volume of drinks served in reusable cups double. They now account for around 20% of the drinks they serve.
“The cup load has made a huge difference in changing people’s behaviors and starting conversations about waste,” said Kate Cordes, director of the Clinton Street Coffeehouse.
— Jordan Hernandez | For the Oregonian/OregonLive