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  • Writer's pictureVeronica Irwin

What to know about Berkeley’s reusable cup program

Updated: Mar 25, 2020



This fall, Berkeley will take first steps in a citywide effort to combat waste produced from to-go cups. A partnership between the Ecology Center and Boulder-based startup Vessel will introduce a reusable cup loan service. The program will launch on Sept. 18 as a nine-month pilot at businesses on the UC Berkeley campus and around Telegraph Avenue in South Berkeley. The pilot is expected to eliminate the need for 1.5 million disposable cups.

Vessel cups are insulated stainless steel to-go mugs with silicone lids. Customers use an app to check one out at participating businesses by scanning the cup’s QR code. They can use the cup for up to five days, when they will need to return it to any participating location or a Vessel return kiosk. While the service is free, it requires a smartphone and credit card to use. (A $15 fee is charged for each lost cup; $2 per mug top.) The process was meant to be simple and familiar, especially to those who use services like public bike-sharing.

Martin Bourque, executive director of the Ecology Center, said “it’s designed to be a seamless experience for students. You pick it up at Free Speech Movement Café, and drop it off at Caffè Strada on your way home.”

Bourque said the partnership with Vessel will help move Berkeley towards a “truly reusable economy.” For this, the program needed a low barrier to entry and a well-designed cup people will want to integrate into their daily lives.

“It’s very attractive. It feels good in the hand, and beverages taste good coming out of it. It’s something you would want in your home” said Bourque.

Berkeley’s reusable cup program arose from the passing of the city’s Single-Use Disposable Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance, which requires businesses to use compostable takeaway foodware and charge customers 25-cents per disposable cup. The law takes effect Jan. 1, 2020.

Business owner and UC Berkeley alumnus Daryl Ross will be one of the first in the city to host Vessel stations. Five of his businesses — Caffè Strada, Free Speech Movement Café, Café Think, Café Zeb, Café Press and I-House Café — will be participating. Café Think, located in the Haas School of Business, is already zero-waste. Vessel co-founder Dagny Tucker said the company will be announcing the remaining businesses, including multiple Bay Area-based chains, next month.

Ross said he and his staff are excited about taking part in the zero-waste effort. “Maybe we’re doing something in our small way contributing to people’s sense of the environment and sustainability,” he said.

“It’s very attractive. It feels good in the hand, and beverages taste good coming out of it. It’s something you would want in your home” — Martin Bourque, Ecology Center executive director

The program is funded primarily by the UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Community Partnership Fund Award, through the Ecology Center’s pre-existing partnership with the UC Berkeley Student Environmental Resource Center (SERC). It has also received additional funding from Plastic Solutions Fund, a nonprofit seeking philanthropic means to help end plastic pollution and StopWaste, a public agency working with Alameda County businesses, residents and schools to reduce waste.

Forty million disposable cups are used in Berkeley each year said Bourque, according to national averages. Yet, most of these cups are not properly recycled or composted, with heavy cross-contamination between bins when customers bus their own food. According to Bourque, the ordinance addresses this problem, ensuring that every item which touches food belongs in the compost bin. But the city hopes to make even less waste by converting consumers to reusable cup users. Similar reusable cup programs exist in Germany, England and Australia.

“The purpose of the ordinance is not to move from recyclable to compostable. It’s to move from throw-away foodware to reusable foodware,” said Councilwoman Sophie Hahn, who authored the single-use foodware measure.

Hahn said the ordinance, which was written with a reusable cup company like Vessel in mind, was designed to prioritize local businesses. “We had a proposal and then purposefully got involved in a comprehensive, consultative program with our food vendors to ensure that the ordinance was workable for them, because our whole attitude in this is that our businesses are our best partners,” she said.

Vessel describes itself as a “turn-key solution” for businesses. Adopting the program has no start-up costs for participants, but requires businesses to spend 25 cents per cup use. Vessel then regularly retrieves the cups via bicycle pedicab to wash, sanitize and return them to the restaurant.

“The purpose of the ordinance is not to move from recyclable to compostable. It’s to move from throw-away foodware to reusable foodware.” — Councilwoman Sophie Hahn

However, some local business owners aren’t entirely convinced. Stuart Baker, executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District (TBID), says some Southside businesses have raised concerns that the law’s 25-cent price hike could deter Berkeley students concerned about costs. He added that the TBID has experienced little outreach from Vessel in assisting in partnering with more Telegraph businesses.

“We know they’re focusing a lot on the university, but we haven’t seen a lot of focus on the Telegraph district,” said Baker.

Another concern among business owners that the pilot program with Vessel doesn’t address are reusable food containers. Hahn said finding an alternative for disposable takeout foodware is crucial, but it will have to wait a few years. Although food containers are not addressed in the pilot program, Hahn aims for a city-wide reusable foodware program by 2022. Should it be enacted, it would be the first of its kind in the world.

While daunting, such a program might not be too far off. Bourque said new state regulations and the outlining of best sanitation practices have made a future foodware program more plausible.

Vessel also sees itself taking part in the solution. Tucker said the company is developing to-go food containers as part of its long-term business plan.

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