Will coffee drinkers miss single-use cups?

Discussion
Photo: Blue Bottle Coffee
Jan 09, 2020
Tom Ryan

Blue Bottle, the coffee chain, is ditching paper cups at two San Francisco locations as a test of nationwide “zero single-use cup” rollout.

To-go customers will bring their own mug or pay a deposit for a reusable cup, which can be kept or returned for a refund. The deposit fee will likely be between $3 and $5.

Blue Bottle’s CEO Bryan Meehan wrote in a blog entry, “Since disposables were introduced in the 1950s, we have grown accustomed to a disposable life, with little thought as to what happens to the materials we use after we throw them in the trash.”

The 93-unit chain, acquired by Nestle in 2017, is the largest to experiment with eliminating single-use cups. Paper cups supporting hot drinks require plastic linings to prevent leakage and that makes them hard to recycle. Some disposable options will be available after concerns expressed by groups representing disabled individuals.

The San Francisco Bay area is where many eco-trends start. In Berkeley, new laws starting in January require cafes and restaurants to charge 25 cents for disposable cups. In response, the Associated Press noted that about a dozen Berkeley cafes teamed up in a mug-sharing program. 

Among larger chains, Starbucks has long offered a 10-cent discount on beverages if consumers bring their own vessel. The bigger effort from national chains is developing a recyclable and compostable coffee cup with both Starbucks and McDonald’s partnering on the effort.

In the blog, however, Mr. Meehan wrote that “recycling alone can’t solve this problem” and the focus has to be on reduce and reuse. 

Each Blue Bottle in the U.S. goes through 15,000 disposable single-use cups per cafe monthly. Even though the chain’s bioplastic cups and straws were 100 percent compostable, too many ended up in landfills, where they don’t break down. Blue Bottle also found a switch to paper straws and sugarcane-paper cups was not enough.

“We expect to lose some business,” Mr. Meehan wrote of the test. “But the time has come to step up and do difficult things. It’s our responsibility to the next generation to change our behavior.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you expect a sizable backlash from consumers hearing there’s no single-use cup option when buying coffee? What lessons can be taken from efforts to reduce the use of plastic bags, plastic straws and other single-use items?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"We’re talking consumer re-training here. Blue Bottle’s customers will get on board and those who don’t will go someplace else. This is a good start!"
"To expect customers to walk around with shopping bags and a mug is not realistic. This solves one problem at the cost of lost sales."
"It is definitely a step in the right direction. Now all we have to do is get everyone on board with sizes. For my 2 cents."

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25 Comments on "Will coffee drinkers miss single-use cups?"


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David Naumann
BrainTrust
David Naumann
Retail Industry Analyst
8 months 10 days ago

Personally, I love the idea. If more coffee shops did this, we would get accustomed to bringing our own personal travel mug with us everywhere. Many people already routinely bring a personal water bottle with them when they travel.

Dave Bruno
BrainTrust

Kudos to Blue Bottle for putting the good of the planet ahead of the good of the business. While they may experience some short-term pain, I for one will seek them out solely based on this decision (in addition to their delicious coffee), and I expect I will not be alone in my thinking…

Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

Leadership takes courage and I admire the move by Blue Bottle. Naturally, some consumers may be turned off by this move, but I think Blue Bottle is on the right side of this argument and ultimately will be rewarded by eco-minded consumers. The key lesson from our efforts thus far to reduce waste is that human nature will always lean to convenience, regardless of the negative impact on the environment. However, removing options like single use cups, straws, and plastic bags altogether provides the best chance for making a difference.

Dr. Stephen Needel
BrainTrust

I wouldn’t say backlash, but there will be a decline among people who are a.) non-local and don’t want to wait in line for a refund or b.) are local and would feel stupid carrying a mug around. The business question for Blue Bottle is, how big are those groups? Assuming lots of Starbucks locations in their neighborhoods, you don’t do anything that will turn away customers.

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

I think this is a great idea – in the U.K. it is a widely accepted process and there is no reason, with proper education and digital support, that this can’t be the norm in the U.S.

Michael Terpkosh
BrainTrust

You just have to look at the number of people that now carry their own water bottle with them and refill it over the course of a day to realize that this can and will work. It will definitely take time for adoption and there may be some logistical concerns to overcome. (I can see some folks walking in with a couple of weeks of cups to get their deposit back and bags of dirty cups stacking up in the back waiting to be cleaned). If this trend takes off across the country then watch out single-use coffee pod CPGs!

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

Sustainability and environmental consciousness will rule the day in 2020 and beyond! This is an outstanding idea, and consumers are expecting retailers and service providers to step to the plate with renewable strategies. Well done Blue Bottle, and there is hope that many other coffee houses, and a certain coffee giant in Seattle, as well as a doughnut shop, follow suit sooner than later.

Lee Kent
BrainTrust

It is definitely a step in the right direction. Now all we have to do is get everyone on board with sizes. For my 2 cents.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

A couple of years ago not being able to get a free cup with my coffee would have driven me crazy but I’m evolving. I’d pay the deposit for the cup if I didn’t have one of my own. We’re talking consumer re-training here. Blue Bottle’s customers will get on board and those who don’t will go someplace else. This is a good start!

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

I have no question that we are headed toward a BYOC (Bring Your Own Cup) model for coffee and other drinks. We worked with a c-store chain in Utah several years ago that did a phenomenal amount of fountain beverage sales. The vast majority of the sales were to people who brought their own cup/mug. The company sales area included several sinks for customers to use to wash/rinse out their cups. They also offered a reasonable discount on those sales.

The issue for many companies will be, how do they handle the transition period from being the first or one of the few to it being common practice. If you are the only one who is not using single-use cups then you will lose business. How much will depend on your current positioning in the market and the discount you are willing to offer for not providing the drink container. Blue Bottle would likely lose less than a neighborhood market.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

I think it is a wonderful idea. But here is the challenge.

Where do I keep this cup? If I had a car, that would be easy, in the car. But, I don’t have a car. So I have to carry it around with me all the time. I am already carrying my phone, my computer, and my bag with various documents to go to meetings.

I am sorry, I try to carry less — not more.

Years ago I actually tried this because Starbucks gives a refund if you use your own cup. It became way too much of a hassle.

Forgive me for being cynical, but I think this is a bit of greenwashing.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

I get it. I worry about remembering to clean in between uses.

Jeff Weidauer
BrainTrust

This is a lot like the CVS decision to discontinue selling cigarettes – bad for sales initially, but it’s the right thing to do. Bravo Blue Bottle.

Liz Crawford
BrainTrust

Finally! It’s single-use disposable mealware that is contributing mightily to the solid waste stream. Bravo!
And – yes – some customers will be turned off. But others will embrace the new paradigm. I believe this is the beginning of a trend that will spread across sectors.

Peter Charness
BrainTrust

Retail is about micro-segmentation. As others have pointed out this is not for everyone. Hopefully there will be more believers who join than single users who leave, for all the reasons stated in this thread.

Ananda Chakravarty
BrainTrust

From a strictly business perspective, this doesn’t change much except increase costs for those who don’t bring their own cups. However I can see less trash, less in-store space needed, and less branding opportunity as everyone will have their own cups. Carrying the cup back and forth can be a hassle. As someone else on this thread mentioned, regular customers will continue to use the services and may get used to the new reusable cups they use with the deposit fee. I suspect location will matter most as to whether there’s any sizable backlash — and customers unwilling to pay $3-$5 extra will be hunting for a new coffee shop. Noble journey, but they’re opening themselves up to competition on convenience and that depends on the rest of their business model.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Sure some customers will give up one-use cups but probably, in the majority of cases, not enough to stop drinking their favorite coffee. The coffee industry has been a bit schizophrenic on environmental issues. Starbucks, for example, asks consumers to haul away their grounds in the name of the planet — a cynic might say to reduce their waste disposal costs as well — but serves hot drinks in cups that can’t be recycled and, at least here in Michigan, still offers plastic straws. True they do sell inexpensive reusable cups — but only in “tall” and “grande” sizes, leaving us poor “venti” drinkers stuck schlepping our own, more expensive, cups. The problem of cup recycling won’t go away until the “no single-use cup” standard is the norm rather than the exception, but — that said — Blue Bottle has taken a step in the right direction, albeit one that will cost them short-term sales.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

Love this idea. Recently found out at Whole Foods that if I bring in my ancient Yeti cup, I get it filled (it’s big) for $2 bucks. By today’s coffee store standards, that’s like half price. I just hadn’t thought to bring that thing in there. But now I’ll do it every time. I love the idea of “training the customer” for a cause they’re into AND giving them some benefits as well for encouragement. Win win. Go Blue Bottle!

W. Frank Dell II
BrainTrust

For the everyday customer a reusable mug will work fine. Upscale restaurants have lockers where you can store your favorite wine or cigars. Putting a customer’s name on the mug, color coating based on volume and remembering the customer’s normal order could be a customer service win. It could incorporate an app: just input you customer number and your order will be waiting, in your mug, when you arrive. The problem is the walk-in customers. Have two different-colored mugs. One stays in the store and one leaves the store. Mugs that leave need a top and have an extra fee attached. This the walk-in customers will not like. To expect customers to walk around with shopping bags and a mug is not realistic. This solves one problem at the cost of lost sales.

Heidi Sax
BrainTrust

I’m sure some surprised customers will be annoyed, but Blue Bottle loyals will adapt. It’s a premium brand, and those who believe this is the best coffee out there will continue to buy it. They’ll also probably pat themselves on the back for doing so. That said, it will be challenging for lower market brands to enforce plastic reduction. As long as some shoppers can head somewhere else, they will. But it’s the direction the world is going and everyone will eventually have to change how they consume, whether they like it or not.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

Because of many of the caveats mentioned in the comments, giving consumers choice and control of their experience is typically better for both the retailer and the consumer, rather than the retailer dictating how the consumer will enjoy their products. A choice of reusing cups or paying a higher price for a cup of coffee with a disposable cup may be an alternative.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

Disposables are a lot older than the ’50s Bryan. And the heritage isn’t just curious trivia, it points out to why they were developed in the first place: health issues with reuseables.

Now, back from 1907: obviously Blue Bottle isn’t going to serve its coffee from a “public cup,” and for repeat customers — their stores are in urban areas that likely see mostly repeat business — a BYOM approach may well work. But there are many restaurants where that isn’t the case, and even in BB, I would think there will be many who don’t know or can’t remember to bring their own. A $5 deposit seems ambitious.

April Sabral
Guest

I find this refreshing to hear a CEO say “We may lose some business” in the effort of doing the right thing for the planet. I carry my own water bottle every day. It is going to take leaders like this to influence the changes needed. Bravo!

Kiri Masters
BrainTrust

I love it. Younger generations are especially receptive to sustainability efforts and it totally jives with Blue Bottle’s demographic.
In my home country of Australia this practice is becoming increasingly common – and folks have taken well to carting their travel coffee mug with them. Perhaps we’ll see disposible coffee cups have the same fate as plastic straws.

Brian Cluster
BrainTrust

Blue Bottle and Nestle have truly shown their leadership with this initiative to remove the option of selling single-use cups. As a consumer and traveler, I can empathize with the inconvenience of bringing your own travel coffee mug on your trips and when you are out and about.

However, if you think about the impact of the frequent use of non-reusable cups that you have made in your life it can be astounding.

For example: 50 visits/ year x 20 years: 1,000 cups

Think about a thousand cups and think about your LinkedIn connections. I have approximately a thousand in my network. Do the math. You and your network have potentially contributed a total of one million disposable cups into the dumps across the US and the world.

When you think in these terms, you can see how this is an important initiative and not a greenwashing effort. Kudos to Blue Bottle. It is a great example of better business for a better world.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"We’re talking consumer re-training here. Blue Bottle’s customers will get on board and those who don’t will go someplace else. This is a good start!"
"To expect customers to walk around with shopping bags and a mug is not realistic. This solves one problem at the cost of lost sales."
"It is definitely a step in the right direction. Now all we have to do is get everyone on board with sizes. For my 2 cents."

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