Larger, corporate coffee chains have generally been slower than their local counterparts to accept reusables during the pandemic. LeoPatrizi via Getty Images

Reusable cups are slowly making a comeback

Dylan Miettinen Aug 17, 2021
Larger, corporate coffee chains have generally been slower than their local counterparts to accept reusables during the pandemic. LeoPatrizi via Getty Images

If you enter In the Loop Coffee Company in Minneapolis’ trendy North Loop neighborhood, you’re greeted with pastries, photos of dogs and the smiling faces of baristas. Or so you assume. It can be hard to tell with the face masks.

Like nearly every coffee shop, In the Loop has dealt with its fair share of pandemic-induced necessities, like the mask mandates and a temporary closure. But one thing that owner Marisa Thom wanted to keep consistent with pre-pandemic times was accepting reusable cups, a habit of some of her regulars.

“Right away we were OK with it,” Thom said. “We really wanted to maintain as much normalcy as we could despite everyone being in such an unfortunate circumstance. Getting coffee in your cup that you know and like could provide a sense of normalcy.”

Thom just asks that the reusable cup, mug or tumbler is clean, and staff simply apply hand sanitizer afterward.

Walk into any mom-and-pop coffee shop, and they’re more likely to make you a drink in your reusable cup. But national and international chains have largely been more hesitant to bring back reusable mugs in the pandemic, despite the virus rarely transmitting via surfaces.

Dunkin halted their reusable mug program. Dutch Bros. stopped accepting mugs in 2020, a policy that’s still in place (though if you bring in a mug, a discount can still be applied, per a company spokesperson). Peet’s Coffee began accepting mugs again on June 15 of this year and Starbucks followed suit with a contactless way for customers to bring reusables again on June 22, both with 10-cent discounts in tow.

For John Nwangwu, a public health professor at Southern Connecticut State University, it’s been odd to see how long it takes for companies to reinstate reusable mug policies. He was among a number of public health experts who signed a letter in June 2020 asking businesses to accept reusables, citing their safety even amid the pandemic.

“[Reusable cups] are safe,” Nwangwu said. “But a business is made up of people. And those operations are run by people. And so people bring the human tendencies, even in business.”

Part of it could also have been the changing science of the pandemic, including the extent to which COVID-19 could remain on surfaces or be transmitted by touch. Most coffee chains that have cut or extended suspensions of reusable programs cite the need to minimize contact between employees and customers.

The suspension of reusables, of course, meant a boost in waste. An estimated 16 billion disposable coffee cups are thrown away each year. In addition to the dashed hopes of waste reduction during the pandemic, other climate change initiatives were cut across the country.

Even those passionate about sustainability were forced to uproot some of their zero-waste habits. That was true for Nicole Grossberg.

“Especially in the height of the pandemic, I found myself buying a lot of packaged goods because just like bulk stores or bulk sections in stores just weren’t open or available to me. And it wasn’t a matter of me feeling unsafe, it just wasn’t available,” she said.

Grossberg founded the Zero Waste NYC Workshop in 2019. At the height of the pandemic, she received questions from friends and followers asking her if she knew which area coffee shops accepted reusables.

So, she made a list of ones she knew about and added ones others mentioned to her. What started out as a Google Doc has since turned into a crowdsourced map of more than 80 local coffee shops that accept reusable cups.

She didn’t know why exactly, of all things, reusable mugs were the thing people inquired about the most. But she thinks it has to do with the individuality of a personal mug.

“It’s an extension of your personality. It represents your style, you can have any color or pattern,” Grossberg said. “People see it as like a cool thing almost to be able to bring your own mug into a coffee shop.”

Petitions have also been created to encourage businesses to reopen and accept reusable products. Grossberg hopes larger companies and corporations will take the chance to lead the way in increasing acceptance of reusables and working to reduce their footprints.

For now, however, it seems local coffee shops are the ones taking charge. So, if you were to ask Thom at In the Loop Coffee for an iced latte in that reusable mug dusted off from the back of the cupboard? She’ll happily whip one up for you. Which helps because, with supply chain issues, there’s a shortage of lids and cold cups, too.

We’re here to help you navigate this changed world and economy.

Our mission at Marketplace is to raise the economic intelligence of the country. It’s a tough task, but it’s never been more important.

In the past year, we’ve seen record unemployment, stimulus bills, and reddit users influencing the stock market. Marketplace helps you understand it all, will fact-based, approachable, and unbiased reporting.

Generous support from listeners and readers is what powers our nonprofit news—and your donation today will help provide this essential service. For just $5/month, you can sustain independent journalism that keeps you and thousands of others informed.