Science Supports the End to the Reusable Coffee Cup Ban

by Jodi Helmer


In March, concerns about the coronavirus led baristas at Nossa Familia Coffee to change their approach to handling reusable mugs.

“We had to adapt quickly,” says Karen Lickteig, sustainability director for Nossa Familia Coffee. “We have really high goals for sustainability and zero waste and we wanted to be progressive about reusables.”

After reviewing all of the city, state and federal mandates for food safety, Nossa Familia asked baristas to make coffee drinks in stainless steel cups and pour them into reusable mugs instead of handling the ceramic or to-go mugs that customers brought into their Portland, Oregon, coffee shops. The “contactless coffee” experience was well received.

“We believed it was possible to maintain high levels of sanitation and sustainability,” Lickteig adds.

Americans use an estimated 120 billion disposable cups every year. Replacing just one disposable cup per day would save 23 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions, 281 gallons of water and keep 16 pounds of solid waste from going to the landfill each year.

The global health pandemic interfered with efforts to transition from single-use plastics to more sustainable options.

The Plastics Industry Association promoted single-use plastic products as “the most sanitary choice” during the coronavirus pandemic; the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also issued draft recommendations for restaurants to switch to disposable products upon reopening.

As the virus spread, coffee shops like Starbucks and Dunkin that had both made significant commitments to sustainability, including promoting reusable cups and implementing changes to their disposable cups, announced they would no longer fill reusable cups due to concerns about contamination. Even Blue Bottle Coffee, which pledged to achieve zero waste across all 70 of its locations in 2020, suspended accepting personal cups at all of its cafes. The ban is still in effect.

“There’s been a huge push by the plastics industry to exploit COVID fears and convince people and policymakers that single-use plastics were necessary to keep us safe,” says John Hocevar oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA. “It was really cynical and not based in the best available science.”

For starters, banning reusables failed to account for possible contamination of single-use plastic cups that are stacked behind the counter and at risk of exposure to droplets of the coronavirus in the air, according to Hocevar.

The latest research shows that the virus lives longer on plastics than other surfaces, increasing the risk from single-use plastics. The CDC notes that it might be possible to contract COVID through contact with contaminated surfaces but that is not the main means of contagion.

“Erring on the side of caution is understandable but, as we started to understand the science better, we know there are no known causes of transmission from surface contact,” Hocevar says. “We need to start to have a more rational conversation about specific kinds of reuse.”

A group of global health experts signed an open letter defending the safety of reusables during the pandemic. The group, which included scientists, doctors and public health experts, noted that standard household disinfectants, detergent and hot water are effective for cleaning reusable items.

Hocevar also notes that other risk reduction strategies such as wearing masks, handwashing and practicing social distancing are far more effective for reducing the spread of COVID-19 than banning reusable cups.

“With people being more aware of handling of materials, there is no reason reusable cups shouldn’t be allowed,” adds Lori Hoepner, DrPH, MPH, assistant professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University. “With a lot of purpose and care, it is completely possible to avoid cross-contamination.”

The Return to Reusables

Although contactless coffee options appear more robust overseas with cafes in Europe, the UK and New Zealand allowing customers to bring their own cups, several US-based cafes are also reintroducing reusable.

The Coffee Ethic in Springfield, Missouri, did stop taking reusable cups early on in the pandemic but owner Michelle Billionis changed the policy in August. Even though the scientific community has deemed it safe to return to reusable coffee cups, larger outlets, including Starbucks, are holding off on allowing reusable cups in their US locations.

Starbucks locations in Europe, Africa and the Middle East reintroduced reusables in August. It took “rigorous testing” to develop a contactless method. The new procedure “allows customers to once again use their reusable cups with confidence,” according to a statement on their website. The coffee giant has not announced plans to reintroduce reusables in the US. In September, McDonald’s locations in the UK announced plans to test reusable coffee mugs.

“We’re behind here in the US in terms of our cultural approach to reuse. Businesses are following, in part, consumer demand.”

John Hocevar

Oceans Campaign Director, Greenpeace USA

California reinstated its plastic bag ban in June and Price Chopper, a New York supermarket chain that banned plastic bags from its stores but reintroduced them during the pandemic, reinstated its ban earlier this summer. The readoption of plastic bag bans could lead to wider reacceptance of reusable coffee cups, too.

“We’re behind here in the US in terms of our cultural approach to reuse,” Hocevar says. “Businesses are following, in part, consumer demand.”

Hocevar also blames the cultural halo of health around plastics for the slow return of reusable coffee cups during the pandemic. The plastics industry, he says, “pushed the idea that reusables were dirty and the only way to stay safe was to use a cup once and throw it away or risk being infected.”

Fears about contamination led to changes to the reusables policy at Nossa Familia Coffee.

Lickteig thought the contactless coffee procedures implemented at the beginning of the pandemic were working well. But, after a brief closure that lasted from March to May, the Portland coffee shop reopened with a moratorium on reusable cups.

“We moved to all to-go cups,” Lickteig explains. “It made our baristas more comfortable because it got rid of the uncertainties about what customers might be bringing into the space.”

Four months after their reopening, baristas at Nossa Familia started allowing reusable cups for drip coffee but lattes and other specialty coffee drinks are only served in single-use cups. Lickteig hopes to reintroduce reusables for all coffee drinks as soon as possible.

“We hope that when they do come back, they come back with a vengeance,” Lickteig says.


Top photo by by Evgeniia/ Adobe Stock

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