CA’s 1st reusable cup-lending program launches in Berkeley

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The city of Berkeley’s Ecology Center introduced California’s first reusable cup-lending program last Wednesday.

The nine-month pilot, launched in collaboration with the cup-lending service Vessel, aims to reduce the city’s consumption of single-use disposable cups.

Customers can check out free stainless steel Vessel cups with silicone lids at any of the 11 participating businesses through an online app. Customers must then return the cups within five days or pay a $15 fine.

“Today we have less than two percent leakage, so really, people are being responsible about dropping it off, and often people just drop it off that same day,” said Vessel founder Dagny Tucker.

Vessel has worked with health organizations, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, to ensure that the process is sanitary, according to Tucker. Cups can be returned to businesses that carry Vessel, and then are retrieved by a bicycle pedicab. The cups are next sent to a sanitizing station and delivered back to participating locales for reuse.

Besides waste reduction, the use of stainless steel cups could decrease exposure to plastic leaching, according to Martin Bourque, the executive director of the Ecology Center.

“(The) standard paper cup is lined with plastic. There are additives in those plastics,” Bourque said. “There are chemicals that can leach into the beverage, so eliminating that by using stainless steel cups is one certain benefit.”

Vessel’s project goes along with the city’s single-use disposable foodware and litter reduction ordinance that was introduced in January 2019. The ordinance, which calls for a 25 cent tax on disposable cups, will go into effect in January 2020.

District 7 Berkeley City Councilmember Rigel Robinson, who gave a press conference at Caffè Strada during the launch last Wednesday, noted his excitement about the project in an email.

“Young people have the greatest stake in the fight for our planet, and so I hope students will embrace this innovative opportunity to reduce their waste on Southside,” Robinson said in the email.

Sarah Bancroft, a campus junior and chief of staff for ASUC Senator Sylvia Targ, appreciates that the cup rentals are free, as price can often be a barrier to sustainable lifestyles.

Bancroft said busy students may have trouble remembering to bring reusable cups. She, however, believes that as long as the company markets the cup rentals, students will generally embrace and appreciate the choice to go zero waste.

Five days into the launch, one of the participating cafés — NorthSide Café —put at least 12 cups in circulation. Sam Nassar, owner of the café, said in a text message that customers seem to be interested but many people already have reusable mugs.

While the pilot is centered around the campus community, the Ecology Center hopes to expand the program to the rest of the city.

“The question shouldn’t be recyclable or compostable,” Bourque said. “The answer is reusable.”

Contact Emma Rooholfada and Olivia González Britt at [email protected].