Blue Bottle Coffee pledges to go ‘zero waste’ by end of 2020

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Janelle Bitker | December 9, 2019

Blue Bottle Coffee helped make single-pour cups of coffee a trademark of cafes across the country. But Monday, the Oakland company announced plans to do away with single-use cups at two Bay Area cafes as it prepares to go zero waste at its nearly 70 U.S. locations by the end of next year.

Instead, customers will either need to bring their own mug, order drinks for-here or put down a deposit for a reusable cup they can exchange for a clean one on their next visit or return for their deposit. That’ll start early next year at a new unnamed San Francisco location and an existing cafe in the East Bay, though Blue Bottle declined to announce the specific locations. If these pilots are successful, Blue Bottle plans to spread the single-use cup ban to other cafes.

“Blue Bottle is not trying to dictate how you live your life. Blue Bottle is trying to challenge you to think about your consumption,” said CEO Bryan Meehan.

Climate change prompted Meehan’s quest to eliminate single-use cups and other disposable packaging from Blue Bottle, including bags for coffee beans. The company goes through an estimated 12 million disposable cups every year in the U.S., and even though they’re made of bioplastics and are 100% compostable, many end up in landfills because customers throw them in trash cans.

While there are different definitions of “zero waste,” Blue Bottle ascribes to one laid out by Zero Waste International Alliance, which recommends a target of 90% waste diversion and doesn’t count successfully composted products, such as leftover pastries or paper napkins, as waste. TRUE (Total Resource Use and Efficiency), the zero-waste arm of Green Business Certification Inc., will certify Blue Bottle’s cafes in 2021, assuming all goes according to plan.

Founded in Oakland in 2002, Blue Bottle has locations in the Los Angeles area, on the East Coast and in Asia, and it recently moved its California roasting operations to Sacramento. To go zero waste in its cafes across the country, Blue Bottle has already switched to cardboard straws, more efficient roasters and sugarcane cups.

At the Bay Area pilot locations, the company hasn’t finalized the cup deposit price, but it’ll likely be $3 to $5. Meehan said he doesn’t plan to otherwise raise menu prices but expects these pilot cafes will make less money than a typical location. That might be because customers will keep their rented cups, which will be worth more than the deposit, or stay away altogether because they want the flexibility of disposables.

“There’s a lot of fear that guests are so used to this behavior pattern that they’re going to get really annoyed with us,” Meehan said. “We’ve got to face the pain and the fear and get on with it.”

An individual coffee chain can’t solve the world’s environmental problems, but businesses do play an important role in the greater effort, said Eric Goldstein, a director with Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group.

“What they can do is cut back on the impacts that their own establishment is having and help set an industry standard, so that their good work can spread throughout the field,” he said.

Several other Bay Area cafes have recently begun getting rid of their disposable cups and implementing rental programs, but none are as big as Blue Bottle. The trend follows increasingly strict city policies that restrict single-use foodware. In Berkeley, for example, businesses must charge customers 25 cents for every disposable cup starting in January. The disabled community spoke out against these paper-cup bans, saying some disabled individuals need to use single-use cups, and Meehan said Blue Bottle cafes will keep some around to be inclusive.

But Blue Bottle won’t just consider single-use cups. The pilot cafes will also stop selling bagged whole beans. Instead, customers will order beans by weight and will need to either bring in their own container or rent one. Similarly, yogurt parfaits and chia seed puddings will come in glass jars, which will require a deposit, too.

“We’re going backwards a little bit, like what we used to do in the old days with a bottle of milk,” Meehan said.

He hasn’t found a realistic reusable substitute for paper napkins, though they are compostable and break down faster than the bioplastics used in cups. The company already sends used coffee grounds from its Bay Area locations to a local farm for composting.

The biggest challenge for Blue Bottle will be training staff in effectively communicating the changes, said Susan Westrup, a director at TRUE, the organization that Blue Bottle will seek zero-waste certification from.

“This helps support the behavioral changes necessary in a culture of convenience and disposal,” she said in an email.

Though Blue Bottle’s potential to influence other cafes and restaurants could be significant, Meehan has his eyes on a bigger corporate target, too: Nestle, which bought Blue Bottle in 2017.

Nestle has made some changes of its own. It recently pledged to become carbon-neutral by 2050 and make all of its packaging reusable or recyclable by 2025. On a smaller scale, Nestle partnered with a new subscription service called Loop, which delivers food and other household goods in reusable packaging, this year.

Blue Bottle has long had a sustainability focus, but Meehan said the latest push came from his children. His 18-year-old daughter texted him every time she went to a Blue Bottle, ordered a drink for-here and still received a to-go cup. She told Meehan that he wasn’t doing enough to fight climate change.

“It’s our children who are most concerned about what’s happening in the world,” he said. “If everyone rethinks, our children’s generation has a chance.”

Editor’s note: This story has been changed since it was first posted to correct some information. The extent of Blue Bottle's plans involving a single-use cups ban was misstated. The company will pilot a ban on such cups at two Bay Area locations before potentially spreading it to other locations.

Janelle Bitker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @janellebitker