Blue Bottle vows to go zero waste by 2020, but will customers get on board?

Blue Bottle Coffee Plans to Ditch Paper Cups at Its Cafes
Photo by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith

Coffee cups, lids, sleeves, and straws create tons of landfill-bound waste each year. Blue Bottle, the Oakland-based coffee company owned by Nestlé, has thrown down the gauntlet with the declaration that it aims to be a zero-waste company by 2020. No major coffee retailer of its size has successfully achieved a zero-waste operation.

If it succeeds, Blue Bottle will be the first. The environmental effect would be a paean for the earth, with some retailers likely following in their footsteps if they can succeed. With 70 locations around the world, how will Blue Bottle perfect the messy art of reducing to-go waste?  

First, they’ll test their zero-waste policy at a San Francisco-area shop by asking customers to tote their own cups to the shop or put down a deposit for a reusable house cup. Coffee will be sold in bulk, and customers will use reusable containers to take beans and even those flaky chocolate croissants to go.

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The timing of the move might not be a coincidence, with Berkeley—where Blue Bottle has a well-trafficked shop—passing a new citywide ordinance requiring reusable cups by July 1, 2020. Perch Coffeehouse in Oakland is already using reusable cups, successfully—and many cities in the Bay Area may pass extensive single-use plastics bans going forward. Parent company Nestlé has also vowed to make packaging reusable or recyclable —but their pledge sets a much later deadline, by 2025.

Blue Bottle CEO Bryan Meehan writes that the transition will involve some loss. He expects to lose customers, in fact. 

“We might fail,” he writes. “We know some of our guests won’t like it—and we’re prepared for that. But the time has come to step up and do difficult things. It’s our responsibility to the next generation to change our behavior.”

Meehan has spoken before about the company’s emphasis on sustainability. The chain’s cups, lids, straws, and napkins are already compostable. The CEO is known for his forward-thinking vision, calling out the dangerous causation between global warming and coffee farms. “Fifty percent of the land that’s used for coffee production will no longer be viable in 2050 with global warming,” Meehan told His company’s zero-waste commitment serves the coffee industry in the long run, since coffee shops produce so much waste.

“I think technology is going to dramatically change the face of packaging,” Meehan said. “You’re going to be able to unwrap a product. If it ends up in the ocean, it’s going to dissolve.”

Saving the earth should be reason enough to bring your own mug to your favorite coffee shop, but if it’s not, perhaps investing in the work of one of these Western ceramicists will sweeten the deal. It’s a trend we can all get behind.