In the future, when you order a coffee at McDonald’s or Starbucks, it could be served in the same cup you used a few months earlier via CupClub.
That’s the vision behind pilot programs this week that will introduce two types of “smart” reusable cups in independent coffee shops in San Francisco and Palo Alto, California. The models, made mostly from plastic and outfitted with RFID chips or QR codes for tracking, are the fruit of a two-year “moon shot” project known as the NextGen Cup Challenge, which was led by Starbucks Corp. and McDonald’s Corp.
Those two chains alone blow through billions of paper cups a year, and most are coated with a plastic lining that makes them almost impossible to recycle. Eliminating that waste would go a long way toward meeting environmental goals set by each company. The NextGen group also intends to try some new compostable and recyclable single-use cups in Oakland.
The key to leaving a lighter footprint on the planet may not be choosing the perfect material, because there are downsides to any disposable cup, whether paper, aluminum or plastic. Instead, NextGen’s big idea is to make cups durable and create a system in which they would be reused. That means collecting, cleaning, redistributing and digitally tracking them — a process that could keep tabs on rates of reuse and attrition. It could theoretically identify areas where people are buying drinks but not returning cups, perhaps indicating a need for more collection sites nearby.
“This technology for tech-enabled reusable cups didn’t exist five years ago,” said Bridget Croke, managing director at Closed Loop Partners, a recycling-focused private equity firm that coordinated the challenge.
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