Five locations are offering customers a reusable, returnable cup for a $1 refundable deposit.

By Mike Pomranz
April 06, 2021
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Disposable coffee cups are a huge source of waste: billions are thrown away in the U.S. every year. So in 2018, Starbucks helped establish the NextGen Cup Challenge to search a more sustainable cup. Options include ideas like more recyclable cups, compostable cups, or reusable cups. And in February of last year, Starbucks began trialing a couple of reusable to-go cup programs at a handful of California locations.

Needless to say, the COVID-19 pandemic upended everyone's priorities—likely exacerbating our waste problem in the process. For instance, last March, Starbucks had to indefinitely pause their program that allowed customers to have their own reusable cups refilled. Still, Starbucks remains committed to reducing cup waste, and today, announced their latest greener cup program—this time at five locations in the Seattle area—with a very straightforward name: Borrow A Cup.

Seattle Borrow A Cup Program
Credit: Starbucks

The Borrow A Cup program, which will last until May 31, allows customers at these select stores to order their drink, hot or cold, in a "newly designed" reusable cup for a $1 refundable deposit. Once the cup is ready for return, customers can simply scan and deposit it at one of these store's contactless return kiosks. They'll then receive a $1 credit to their Starbucks Rewards account, as well as 10 Bonus Stars.

From there, a company called GO Box collects the cups, cleans and sanitizes them, and gets them back out for use in under 48 hours. "Since our launch in 2010, GO Box has been working to develop systematic processes and infrastructure to scale reusable packaging for food and drink to go," Jocelyn Gaudi Quarrell, CEO of Go Box, said in the announcement. "We're thrilled to be partnered with Starbucks to ensure the Borrow A Cup program is a safe and sustainable choice for your favorite beverage."

Seattle Borrow A Cup Program
Credit: Starbucks

And that's not Starbucks' only partner in this program: They're also working with a Seattle-based company called Ridwell which specializes in home collection of reusable and hard-to-recycle items—so if customers don't want to drop their Starbucks Borrow A Cup cups back at Starbucks, Ridwell will take them away instead. Yes, with this program, customers can even return their cups from the comfort of their own home.

"Promoting reusability is an important part of Starbucks goal to reduce waste by 50 percent by 2030," Michael Kobori, Starbucks' chief sustainability officer, added. "We understand the interdependency of human and planetary health, and we believe it is our responsibility to reduce single use cup waste. We will lead the transition to a circular economy."

Of course, some people may wonder why they can't simply go back to using their own reusable cups. "The decision to pause personal cup use was made early in the pandemic and continues in the U.S. today as the health and well-being of our partners and customers remains top of mind and our highest priority," a Starbucks spokesperson told me via email. "A key difference with this [new Borrow A Cup] program is that baristas will not be handling used cups. Reusable cups in this program are collected by GO Box which cleans and sanitizes them before the cups are brought back to Starbucks cafes and stored under our rigorous food safety handling protocols. We remain committed to making store operations decisions that meet or exceed guidance from public health officials."