Two winners of the NextGen Cup Challenge are having their ideas put into coffee shops in two cities.

By Mike Pomranz
Updated February 20, 2020
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Yesterday, I ordered a drink at a chain restaurant. The straw was paper, but the giant cup was still plastic. It’s a fitting analogy for humanity’s battle against plastic waste: We’re tackling some of the small problems—and don’t get me wrong, they need to be tackled—but larger problems, like single-use cups, still remain.

For the past couple of years, the NextGen Cup Challenge—a program launched by Starbucks and the sustainability-focused firm Closed Loop Partners which has since joined by other big names like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and Yum! Brands—has supported the quest for a more environmentally-friendly coffee cup. For some designers, that’s meant more easily recyclable or compostable cups, but others have been working on a more old-school approach: reusable cups—albeit ones people can still take with them. And now, a couple of these solutions are receiving test runs.

Credit: Courtesy of Muuse

This week, Closed Loop announced that two pilot programs are getting launched in California, both of which seek to collect, clean, and reuse coffee cups as an alternative to the traditional single-use to-go cup. And since both pilots stem from the NextGen Cup Challenge, in theory, they could potentially serve as the future for brands like Starbucks and McDonald’s. Though for now, these trials are taking place on a much smaller scale at several independent shops each.

“The ongoing work from the NextGen Cup Consortium provides valuable insights and learnings for all the members, us included, as we continue to explore a variety of ways to better manage our waste and reduce our environmental footprint,” Michael Kobori, Chief Sustainability Officer at Starbucks, said in the announcement.

Of course, the milkman will tell you that reusable beverage containers are not a new concept. But these cup trials actually do offer a high-tech spin on the idea by containing either RFID (radio-frequency identification) chips or QR codes for tracking. “This technology for tech-enabled reusable cups didn’t exist five years ago,” explained Bridget Croke, managing director at Closed Loop Partners, according to Bloomberg Green.

One trail is courtesy of the startup CupClub, which is reportedly using the RFID method to track its London-designed plastic cups in the Palo Alto area (after previously selling the system to offices). Meanwhile, another startup, Muuse—which uses metal cups with reusable plastic lids—employs the QR code method for its San Francisco trail. Both systems allow for a cup to be scanned at different points in its journey—like when it leaves the store or when it's collected for washing—to track its lifespan. And Muuse explained that tracking the cups also allows them to make sure no store runs out of cups and no points of return are overflowing.

As for how it works, Muuse COO Lizzie Horvitz told Eater SF that, for their trial, customers get a 25 cent discount for using the cup, which they scan with the Muuse app on their phone before leaving. Then, customers have five days to return their cup or they get hit with a $15 penalty on their credit card info, also stored in the app.

Muuse CFO Forrest Carroll told me via email that previous trials in Asia, at college campuses, and with Google have seen 90 to 95 percent return rates. He also said that, though the company is so new they aren’t positive about how long their cups can last, they believe each cup can be used thousands of times, and they definitely wear out more slowly than plastic.

“We have a sleek stainless steel cup in circulation here in San Francisco that people love drinking out of. It sets them apart from other people in line during their daily coffee routine,” Carroll continued. “The baristas we are working with seem to love being a part of these reusable systems. Our system is simple to use, and once users have been onboarded through our app, the check out and return process takes about then seconds. For us, simplicity is the key to large-scale adoption; the first hurdle is making sure people know that it's an option!”

Speaking of which, now that you know it exists, Closed Loop states that the trials will be taking place on “a rolling basis over the coming weeks.” If you live in California and want to participate, here are all of the locations for both trials:

CupClub in Palo Alto and Stanford: Coupa Café Ramona (538 Ramona St), Coupa Café Lytton (111 Lytton Ave), Coupa Café GSB (655 Knight Way), Coupa Café Green Library (571 Escondido Mall), and Verve Coffee Roasters (162 University Ave). With drop points at Cafe Venetia (drop point only) (419 University Ave), Coupa Cafe Y2E2 (drop point only) (473 Via Ortega), and City of Palo Alto City Hall.

Muuse in San Francisco: Andytown Coffee Roasters (181 Fremont St), Ritual Coffee Roasters (432b Octavia St), Equator Coffees (222 2nd St), and La Boulangerie de San Francisco, Hayes (500 Hayes St).