In Petaluma, California, to-go cups will now be reused all around town

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Adele Peters | Fast Company | 7/9/24

If you buy a latte from Starbucks in downtown Petaluma, California next month, it will come in a reusable cup with a bright purple back—and you’ll see similar to-go cups at more than 30 other restaurants in the city, from the Petaluma Pie Company to KFC.

In a first-of-a-kind pilot, both big chains and local cafes are testing a new system designed to make reuse nearly as easy for customers as tossing a single-use cup in the trash. The cups are free to use. When you finish your drink, you can drop the cup in one of dozens of bins throughout the city. Then it will be collected, sanitized, and delivered back to another downtown restaurant to be used again. The three-month-long pilot has the potential to replace hundreds of thousands of single-use cups.

“It’s the first initiative that we’re aware of that will make reusable to-go cups the default option over single-use across multiple restaurants throughout a U.S. city,” says Kate Daly, managing director of the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners, one of the groups behind the new pilot. The organization leads the NextGen Consortium, a project sponsored by big brands that’s focused on reimagining single-use food packaging.

[Photo: Closed Loop Partners]


In the past, smaller pilots and programs have offered reusable cups at individual stores. But to make reuse viable, a larger shift is necessary. “We’ve seen in market testing that customers really want to have a more consistent experience across multiple retailers,” says Daly. “Interoperability is really critical. People are on the go—they shop at one place, they’re disposing of items at other places. Reuse needs to be seen as easy and convenient and not that you have to pay attention to ‘this belongs here and not there.’”

Starbucks has launched reusable cup pilots in multiple markets around the world, including one that ran in its Petaluma stores last year. “The challenge is, especially when you have return bins only in Starbucks, that it’s hard to get all those cups back and really make the environmental impact that’s intended,” says Amelia Landers, vice president of product experience and innovation at Starbucks.

Though the return rate for reusable cups can be high in a closed environment like a large stadium, it’s typically much lower in an open system. (The NextGen Consortium declined to publicly share the data from smaller previous pilots.)

Even with incentives for customers to bring cups back to a store, it’s hard to get them to actually do it. “We found that financial incentives don’t always work like we think they will,” Daly says. “We’ve done tests with even the most simplified return process and cash handouts for return and found that was an insufficient incentive. We know that deposit programs that require somebody to sign up for an app and put their credit card in create a real barrier to people participating in reuse.”


The new pilot won’t offer incentives for return. Instead, the theory is that by making the program ubiquitous in the small city, people will return the cups because it’s easy. If you bring cups home, you’ll also be able to schedule a pickup. (Muuse, a company that specializes in managing reusable packaging, will handle all of the logistics of collecting and sanitizing the containers throughout the city.) Messaging about the program will also be visible around Petaluma, from a billboard to the cups themselves, which say ‘Sip, Return, Repeat.’

NextGen Consortium members—including brands like Coke and Pepsi—gave input on the design of a version of the cups for cold drinks. For hot drinks, the cups are made from lightweight polypropylene, an insulated version of the same recyclable material used in yogurt packaging. The cups were designed to be functional but not desirable, so customers wouldn’t be tempted to keep them.

“We want to make sure that people don’t participate in a reuse system by taking home a reusable cup and never returning it,” Daly says. “Because then that’s not a reuse system. That’s a more carbon intensive single-use system.”

The pilot will last from early August until November, as the partners track how well it works. That includes studying what restaurant staff think about the program, since they can help make or break this type of project. If the reuse rates are high enough, the project could be a model for other cities. The city could also decide to make the program permanent; the NextGen Consortium is willing to donate the cups and return bins after the test if the community wants to keep using them. Petaluma, which has already banned foam cups, is also considering a broader single-use cup ban.

For the NextGen Consortium, the project is one step in figuring out how to move away from the 50 billion single-use cups that are thrown away in the U.S. each year. Most are used for less than a hour. Personal reusable coffee mugs are one part of the solution. So are traditional mugs and glasses when people stay in a store. But stores also need a to-go option for customers who don’t bring their own containers. Ultimately, with a combination of BYO and reusable cups, Daly believes it could be possible to fully move away from single-use cups. “We do still have more work to do to get there,” she says. “But I think that is within reach.”