Waste Management

Many Coffee Shops Don’t Want to See Your Mug Just Yet

The coronavirus pandemic stalled the momentum of using reusable mugs, but with restrictions being relaxed these mugs will soon be filled with coffee again. (istock)

It’s been 4,884 days since Alex Eaves’ last drink.

Out of a disposable coffee cup.

For the Massachusetts-based reuse pro and coffee lover, this is a point of pride and a sincere lifestyle choice. So, when the pandemic hit, and coffee shops stopped filling travel mugs because of concerns about spreading COVID-19, he despaired, and then he began brewing his own coffee at home.

In a social-media post, he wrote, “I wasn’t going to let a world virus crisis change my views on the world waste crisis.”

When ecoRI News recently caught up with him by phone, Eaves was keen to point out that if all the disposable coffee cups he hadn’t used over the course of his 4,884 cup-less days were stacked one on top of the other, they’d reach higher than Boston’s John Hancock Tower sitting on top of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.

Overall, Americans dispose of 108 billion coffee cups annually. It’s a pandemic of waste that has serious public-health ramifications in its own right.

Now, as information has emerged about how COVID-19 spreads — primarily in droplets suspended in the air and not from surfaces — and as Rhode Island relaxes coronavirus restrictions, many environmentalists like Eaves are wondering when reusable mugs will again be filled.

Prior to the pandemic, Clean Water Action had been spearheading a technical-assistance program called ReThink Disposable to help restaurants reduce waste by stemming the use of disposable food-service items. But that effort ground to a halt last spring during lockdown, as restaurants closed or shifted to takeout in single-use containers only.

“Early on in the pandemic the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] gave some alarming guidance because they weren’t sure,” said Johnathan Berard, state director of Clean Water Action in Rhode Island, “but by June the CDC had reversed its position saying there was no evidence COVID-19 is spread by surface contact. There’s no evidence that using a resuable cup will transmit COVID. That is a seed of doubt that was planted by CDC and then made itself into the culture.”

He added that nationally, Clean Water Action has published a guide for pandemic-safe ways for restaurants to incorporate reusables.

The week of May 10, ecoRI News did a small unscientific survey of Rhode Island coffee shops to see where they stood on travel mugs; we messaged them via direct message on Instagram to ask about their policies. Of those businesses that responded, most said they weren’t accepting travel mugs just yet.

In a direct message, Empire Coffee + Tea replied that it was evaluating options to serve in reusable cups. “Once we settle on a process, we will roll it out at [our] Broadway [store in Newport] before expanding to the other stores. Hopefully in weeks not months.”

Dave’s Coffee indicated it was holding back on accepting travel mugs, citing health concerns and writing, “Our primary concern is keeping a sanitary, safe and healthy environment for our team and our customers. We understand that the science indicates that it’s very difficult for the virus to spread on surfaces. But, please see the link [to] a recent study in the NIH stating that the mouth and its saliva may play an important — and underappreciated — role in spreading SARS-CoV-2 throughout the body and, perhaps, transmitting it from person to person.

“Obviously, handling a customers [sic] reusable mug that could have saliva on it would not be a chance we are willing to take at this time. We will, at some point, welcome back reusable mugs with open arms though.”

Small Point Café said it will bring back its travel-mug service when it returns to indoor dining and begins using in-house mugs and plates again instead of to-go containers. It said that would happen as soon as its staff is completely vaccinated.

Coffee Exchange wrote it is erring “on the side of caution on this one … as much as we support re-using and sustainable behaviors. We are not set up to be able to take customer items into the shop from the order window on the deck.”

White Electric Coffee is the only shop that responded that is accepting travel mugs for some drinks. Initially, when ecoRI News reached out to White Electric, it said the issue was something staff had been considering internally. “This message from you is a good prompt and I’ll bring this topic up at our monthly group meeting tomorrow.”

By the next morning, in a follow-up message, White Electric said its staff had decided to accept travel mugs for “quick pourable drinks, like coffee and tea” but decided to continue excluding their use for espresso-based drinks, “since that requires more handling and utensils, so we wanted to avoid any possible contamination.”

The nature of the responses indicates there is a desire to embrace reusables again, but it’s outweighed by public-health concerns and a general lack of official guidance on safe procedure for handling travel mugs.

When asked whether the state had any specific guidance to offer these businesses, a spokesperson for the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) wrote in an e-mail, “The CDC has stated that the risk of getting sick with COVID-19 from handling food and food packages is very low. You can think about a reusable mug in the same way.

“However, it’s important that people clean their reusable mugs thoroughly and regularly. This is important for personal health, and it’s also required by the Rhode Island food code if a reusable mug is being used in a place like a coffee shop.”

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, much progress had been made in shifting behavior away from single-use food-service items. But will a pandemic-weary germophobic public embrace reusables like travel mugs again?

David McLaughlin, executive director of Clean Ocean Access, sees a path forward. In an e-mail to ecoRI News, he wrote, “We are taking a step-wise approach to the emerging contaminants facing our community, and that includes personal protection equipment and the proliferation of single-use plastics since the onset of the pandemic. Protecting human health and the unknowns of COVID-19 did erode some of the progress of environmental efforts, but we are confident and optimistic in the game plan.”

One of the Middletown-based organization’s priorities, he wrote, is to “work with the governor’s office and RIDOH to issue a public statement to clarify the topic of reusable beverage containers.”

For now, the acceptance of travel mugs remains spotty. But Eaves has found a few places near where he lives in southeastern Massachusetts that have begun accepting his travel mug again.

And in his online wanderings, he has seen some inventive reuse solutions, such as the United Kingdom’s #ContactlessCoffee campaign, which provides resources for coffee shops that want to keep reusables on the menu.

He is optimistic that people will once again embrace reusable food-service items.

“The biggest virus for our planet is waste and pollution,” Eaves said. “I don’t think people are going to give up on [reusables] entirely.”

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