Following the new coronavirus outbreak, confidence in programs for reusable and refillable containers has seemingly reached an all-time low. Refillable coffee cups were among the first items to be sacrificed in the name of public health, a trend that has only spiked as the pandemic has worsened.
Fast food giants like Starbucks, Dunkin' and McDonalds – brands that recently voiced commitments to weaning off disposable foodware – swiftly announced the suspension of bring-your-own (BYO) container programs in the initial weeks of the pandemic. The change comes just as a movement away from single-use was getting mainstream attention. And as food operators big and small (many of which are now limited to take-out or delivery only) lean on disposables more than ever, environmentalists worry the trend could be lasting.
But some players in the space are pushing back. For Dagny Tucker, founder of a reusable to-go cup service Vessel, if this global crisis has demonstrated anything, it’s that not all reusables are created equal. Most reuse-refill programs emphasize BYO policies, which Tucker views as distinct from her business model. Vessel provides reusable stainless steel to-go cups to around 3,000 users across 20 coffee shops in Berkeley, California and Boulder, Colorado.
“We have really strict protocols. We work with health departments in the communities that we’re in. We wash, sanitize, and we pack into a sanitized food-grade container that’s then sealed, and deliver to back-of-house,” she told Waste Dive. Right up to the day restaurants shut down, she recalls getting requests from vendors to expand the program into new locations. “What we realized was, we were becoming the ‘safe reusable’ option.”
In the two weeks before officials in both cities limited foodservice operations (and later issued "stay at home" orders) Tucker watched as Vessel experienced its biggest surge in demand since she launched the operation in 2018.
Now, as restaurants throw BYO overboard and scramble to adapt, some believe COVID-19 might just be the push the industry needs to expand and formalize “zero waste,” circular economy systems.
The health code factor
Not all reusable to-go cup ventures experienced a bump in the early days of COVID-19 concerns in the United States.
Even before restaurants were ordered to shut down in Massachusetts, Alison Rogers of the Boston-based Coffee Cup Collective told Waste Dive she saw her volume drop dramatically, "as our corporate partners decided to work from home and overall volume in our partner cafés dwindled." However, like Tucker, she sees an unprecedented opportunity for reusable to-go cup programs to advertise themselves as a safe alternative to disposables, once food establishments fully reopen.
“If anything, I imagine that health codes could become more strict by limiting ‘bring your own’ reusables,” she told Waste Dive. That, Rogers argues, could be a boon for third-party vendors specializing in reusables. “The fact that we eliminate the risk of cross-contamination is part of our value proposition.”
Long before COVID-19 emerged, refill programs made some retailers and foodservice establishments nervous. A good case study of this is in the bulk food section of grocery stories, another place where refill behaviors have flourished.
Fearing cross-contamination, Whole Foods has long maintained a company-wide ban on purchasing food from the bulk section in BYO containers. In response to the coronavirus, the company has now removed all scoop bins from this department. The Massachusetts store bfresh, owned by grocery giant Ahold Delhaize, has gone a step further removing all self-serving dispensers entirely, areas of the store most frequented by BYO container shoppers.
Natha Freiburg Dempsey, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute, says the sterility of disposables has long been an advantage over reusable packaging.
“Food service packaging has been around for over 100 years, and for good reason,” she told Waste Dive in an email. “While foodservice packaging is often lauded as convenient, it was truly born out of a need to protect public health. Properly stored and handled foodservice packaging aids public health and minimizes the opportunity for food contamination making it a safe, sanitary option. It's also what allows us to live our lives on-the-go in an easy, yet safe way.”
Taking advantage of this current shift in public attitude, a coalition of plastics companies and trade groups sent a letter to New York's state legislature last week advising against a proposed ban on polystyrene foam products.
"The current crisis reminds us all of one of the benefits of single-use food service products that we too often take for granted. Their use can promote safety by reducing risks of foodborne illnesses," the letter stated, citing an excerpt from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Model Food Code about how reuse could result in such illnesses. The letter went on to note how businesses that "are already under tremendous pressure from the unknowns around the virus, would be even more strained by the loss of these valuable products."
Many state and local governments that previously enforced bans on disposable materials are now feeling the pressure to reconsider them to ease pressure on food operators still serving the public. Multiple states have delayed or reconsidered plastic bag bans as a result. And Brookline, Massachusetts, an early polystyrene foam opponent, meanwhile lifted its own ban last week.
But not everyone agrees with that approach. Jessica Heiges, who studies reusable business models with Dr. Kate O’Neill at the University of California at Berkeley, questioned the notion that disposables are always more hygienic.
“In a doctor’s or a dentist’s office, if they’re pulling things out of plastic, consumers get conditioned to think that if it comes out of plastic, it’s automatically sterile,” she explained to Waste Dive. “And there are cases, like those, in which disposable is [surgically] sterile. But that sterility is not translated into all industries, and it’s certainly not the case when it comes to foodware.” More invisible, Heiges argues, is the lengthy supply chain most disposable cups endure, which is rarely a factor in consumer perceptions about cleanliness.
“How is it that an item produced tens of thousands of miles away in a factory, touched by multiple unknown personnel, shipped a great distance, and which has sat on a shelf for an undetermined amount of time is now perceived in the customer and business’s eyes as being more hygienic," she asked, "compared to something that’s washed on-site at high temperatures that kills all bacteria, and it’s just handled by the barista going from the dishwasher to the beverage?”
While the current pandemic concerns may have paused the recent momentum around reusable coffee cups and other containers, supporters believe that lull is only temporary.
Sarah Greenwood, a packaging technology expert at the Grantham Center for Sustainable Futures, argued part of the challenge is quantifying risk levels when there are so many unknowns. She feels decisions by brands to cancel refill programs in response to the pandemic is appropriate in order to “review their hygiene systems,” but hopes that they “can bring them back as soon as possible.”
Others expressed similar confidence. Closed Loop Partners, which manages the NextGen Cup Consortium working on reusable cup solutions for big brands like Starbucks and McDonalds, said its work is continuing and all parties involved remain enthusiastic.
“We continue to see growth and excitement around reusables as a means of addressing the global challenge of packaging waste,” Managing Director Bridget Croke told Waste Dive in an email. “We know that health and safety are top of mind right now… As with all packaging and delivery systems for food and consumer goods, reusable models must meet and exceed the health and safety standards that we know and trust today.”
For Vessel, Tucker said there were plans to implement her company's program with a large, quick-service restaurant prior to COVID-19. While she couldn't disclose the name, Tucker described the client as "a unicorn kind of vendor in the space.” She told Waste Dive the vendor is still “extremely positive and [has] continued to move all the balls forward in order to press go as things pass and we’re able to do our launch.”
With great uncertainty around how this pandemic will unfold, it may take BYO container programs quite some time to recover from current public health concerns, to the chagrin of many thermos-toting consumers. But for the concept of reuse as a third-party operated, health code-certified, circular economy mechanism, it could be an opportunity to fill the void those programs left behind.