Amid the ongoing plastic-straw backlash that reached a fever pitch in 2018, many companies have ditched or pledged to ditch single-use plastic straws, including Starbucks, Hyatt, and American Airlines. So have lots of cafés and coffee shops big and small. But many onlookers have questioned the logic of phasing out plastic straws while still using plastic cups.
Now Blue Bottle Coffee, which ditched plastic straws in April, has rid itself of plastic cups, too.
The Nestlé-owned chain completed the change in November, replacing the plastic cups it was using for iced coffee with white cups made of bagasse, a byproduct of sugarcane processing. The cups have a thin layer of compostable PLA (polylactic acid, a polymer) to keep them from collapsing from the cold liquid.
Blue Bottle is still using its signature brown paper cups, which customers have been used to seeing in Blue Bottle for years, for hot beverages. Those cups are not made from bagasse, but a spokesperson says Blue Bottle is currently searching to find sugarcane-paper hot cups that meet their standards.
Still, customers who order an iced coffee might be surprised to be handed a paper cup; paper doesn’t typically perform well with iced drinks. Back in 2015 when Blue Bottle switched its plastic cup supplier, it temporarily served all iced coffee in its brown paper cups— those cups wore down quickly when used for iced coffee. The white sugarcane cups do stand up longer, Yahoo Finance testing finds.
At that time, Blue Bottle had just 23 locations globally. Four years later, it has 93. (73 are in the U.S., 16 in Japan, four in South Korea.)
Aiming for Zero Waste status
The end of plastic cups at Blue Bottle was casually mentioned in the company’s larger declaration, in a Dec. 9 blog post, that it aims to achieve “Zero Waste” status by the end of 2020. That designation, based on a definition from the Zero Waste International Alliance, means that a company recycles at least 90% of its waste, avoiding landfills.
“Zero Waste” does not mean ditching single-use cups. (Many news sites incorrectly reported that Blue Bottle will phase out single-use cups by the end of 2020; that is not correct.) But Blue Bottle will also test out a “zero single-use cup program” at two pilot locations in San Francisco. CEO Bryan Meehan calls this “an experiment that may not work, that may cost us money, and that may make your life a little more complicated.” At the pilot cafés, Blue Bottle will give customers a “beautiful” reusable cup for a small deposit fee; customers can keep the cup or return it to the café for cleaning. It will also sell all its grab-and-go food items in reusable containers.
The chain has “no imminent plans to do away with single-use cups” at all of its stores, a spokesperson says—just at the two pilot stores. In fact, Meehan says Blue Bottle currently goes through 15,000 single-use cups a month at every cafe, or 12 million per year.
Nonetheless, the pilot program is a major step in the right direction and quickly got a stamp of approval from Greenpeace, which said in a statement in response: “Blue Bottle’s commitment is significant because it not only tackles the issue of single-use plastics, it strikes a blow to our throwaway culture as a whole.” Greenpeace USA plastics campaigner Kate Melges added that Blue Bottle’s plan “puts direct pressure on Nestlé to do more to end its reliance on single-use plastics.”
Blue Bottle is small, with 93 locations, but it is among the first household-name coffee chains to ditch plastic cups. Starbucks, Dunkin, and Peet’s, are all still using them—for now.
Daniel Roberts is a senior writer and live show host at Yahoo Finance, and often covers (and drinks) coffee. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.