What is the future of BYOC post-COVID? Portland Coffee Shops Speak Out

Update from 10/26/20 from Nossa Familia: They have opened up their Seven Corners Cafe on SE Division (where they first piloted the to-go charge), and are now accepting personal mugs. They are using a contactless drink pouring method. Mugs must be clean, baristas will not directly handle your mug at any time and also can decline any mug.

Update from 10/6/20 from Jezebel’s: They have implemented their 25 cent to-go charge for all disposable cups! Clean reusable mugs are accepted through the drive-thru. They join Nossa Familia as the only two coffee shops to charge for to-go cups.

Update from 8/27/20 from Jezebel’s: They are now accepting clean, reusable cups again, and they plan to implement a 25 cent to-go charge for disposable cups later this year, and are looking at a reusable mason jar program.

Update from 8/24/20 from Nossa Familia: They are now using drinking jars. They are only $5, come with a lid and you can have your first iced drink made directly into them. They are also accepting clean personal mug usage for drip coffee only. Their hope is to roll out a system for being able to serve any drink in personal mugs, as well as their own cup exchange program for hot & cold drinks in the future.

Update from 8/22/20: Another podcast from UPSTREAM about single-use and COVID: Myth-busting with Public Health Experts: The Safety of Single-use.

Update from 6/22/20: Reusable containers safe during COVID-19 pandemic, say experts – 119 scientists from 18 countries say reusable containers do not increase the chance of virus transmission. Scientists’ advice for consumers is to wash reusable containers thoroughly with hot water and detergent or soap. Another article related to single-use plastics.

Our Bring Your Own Cup (BYOC) Campaign has been going for a couple of years now, and ever since COVID has changed the way we live, we’ve seen that most coffee shops have shut down, and those still open have switched back to almost 100% disposable cups.

What happens when the shops come back online? Will we see the return of reusable cups, or will disposables be back in full force?

What about alternative options to get coffee into your container? Pour directly into your cup without the barista touching it?

What about the shop washing your cup to ensure the cup is sterile and low risk?

What about 3rd party services that manage reuse, such as GO Box?

We reached out to some coffee shops involved in our campaign early on, to ask about their thoughts…

Nossa Familia (multiple locations)
Status: Seven Corners location just re-opened

From Karen, Sustainability Director: “In the short term, I hope that coffee shops find innovative ways to ensure public health and to reduce waste. We also hope that customers choose less wasteful routes such as brewing more coffee at home or patronizing places that offer low-waste options. Before closing Nossa Familia cafes, we came up with a solution for continuing to pour drinks into customers’ personal mugs. We made the drink in one of our clean cups, and poured it into the customer’s mug, making sure not to touch or handle their vessel. Unfortunately, I expect that nearly all cafes will place bans on personal mug usage, at least for the next several months, seeing it as necessary for sanitation purposes (UPSTREAM has a PDF about their research on reuse safety).

Nossa Familia had recently rolled out a special steel pint container, into which beverages will be made; they will then be poured directly into personal cups to avoid cross-contamination in a zero-waste manner. From March 2020 Barista Magazine article.

I think that a lot of shops have jumped to implementing the most extreme measures, completely banning all personal mug usage. However, I think that we can come up with common-sense solutions that are both sanitary and not so wasteful. We hope as it becomes safe to do so, that more people choose to have their drinks for-here in a reusable mug again.

I’m also hopeful in the long term that we may be able to learn from this situation and reimagine sanitation programs for reusables that make even more people feel comfortable than before, such as cup deposit and trade systems. The case for programs like GO Box cups or Huskee cups has never been stronger. I also hope we can come up with better solutions for our waste, so that not everything needs to go to the landfill, but that more packaging can truly be compostable. I have always advocated reusable options before recycling or compost, but a good compostable or recyclable option could really help in times like these where our safe options are limited to recapture the embodied energy of ‘waste’ products. I think we’ve experienced a setback when it comes to promoting zero waste, but I’m hopeful that human ingenuity and creativity will help us find new, reimagined solutions to limit our waste.

In addition to coffee cups, I also hope folks consider responsible use of disposable gloves. We should not expect that foodservice workers are all wearing gloves, unless they are directly handling ingredients or prepared food. The practice of wearing disposable gloves for normal activity is wasteful, and could also take away glove supply from frontline healthcare workers who need them most. Studies have shown gloves can actually lead to more unsanitary conditions in food service due to a false sense of security and a reduced focus on frequent handwashing.”

Update 5/10/20: Nossa Familia is opening this week, but will not be immediately continuing the personal cup system they had going before closing, mostly for logistical reasons over sanitation. They hope to add it again soon.

See Nossa Familia’s recent response to COVID-19

Nectar Cafe (Hollywood)
Status: Open, but must call ahead, coffee brought outside

From Natasha, Owner: “We are not sure what the best plan of action is. We are no doubt going through more disposable products than ever before and it pains us. 100% of what we are doing is takeout.

We have a reusable mason jar program, but what happens after we give it out to our customers? It would make sense for people who occasionally get a drink and then continually reuse the jar at home. But it doesn’t make sense to recycle the mason jars, with all the energy costs of breaking it down and then trying to turn it into a new glass product.

If they bring the jars back for reuse, it’s the same situation as a reusable cup. It creates a higher risk to our staff when we are accepting back containers from people’s homes, and then needing to handle the sanitizing in house with the rest of our restaurant dishes. 

At this point, we are doing our best to stay in business under the restrictions and provide people with a service, even though that service is completely to-go. I am open to any suggestions, but I truthfully don’t know what the common practices in our near future will be.”

Jezebel’s Last Standing Merrygoround Cafe (Cully)
Status: Open, walk-up/drive-thru only

From Tuesday, Owner:

“Yes, I’d love to see a resurgence of BYOC. Now might be a good time to switch over to mason jars with $1 deposits. People can probably return them for us to sanitize and re-use, but I’m unsure if this would violate some sort of health regulations. It was always my goal to eliminate trash cups.

When I took over the business (formerly Motivasi), it was difficult with such a short turnaround time and a clientele with expectations of a norm to be able to instill such a dramatic change. But now is a great opportunity to set new customer expectations with all the changes going on right now.

I’m interested in what sort of restrictions COVID mindfulness will have on this. If it’s not a violation to sanitize incoming returns, this would be a great step in the correct direction.”

Note from RA: If the cups are sanitized and washed through the recommended cleaning processes approved for dishware and the current for-here mugs by the health department, this program should be acceptable.

Responsible Cafes is an organization helping to promote BYOC and other sustainable practices in coffee shops and cafes, based in Australia. Since the pandemic started, they have been promoting “contactless pour” as an option for shops, in order to reduce transmission risk, but still allow personal cups and mugs. If that’s not an option, they promote other options:

  • Asking for “no lid”
  • Pouring into the shop’s reusable container, then pouring directly into the customers personal cup without touching it
  • Considering a cup swap program

Here is a video showing the contactless coffee pour

They have some good information in this COVID article, and they post updates on their Facebook site, so I encourage you to check them out.

In related news, I highly recommend this page setup by UPSTREAM with lots of great content about reuse and the current research, such as:

From a recent email newsletter, they shared these confusing recommendations from the CDC

This past week, a lot of claims about COVID-19 have raised some contradictions. You might have heard in the media that the virus “does not spread easily” by touching surfaces. Or read the CDC statement confirming that surface transmission “is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.” This is great for those of us concerned about the future of reuse, right? 

But then, the CDC recommended that restaurants and bars use all disposable products – plates, cups, utensils, menus, everything – upon reopening. Yet they also recommended disinfecting frequently touched surfaces… which is way harder to do with single-use products versus dishware that can be sanitized in commercial dishwashers. 


On August 20, 2020, Upstream released another podcast about single-use items and COVID transmission risks, titled “Myth-busting with Public Health Experts: The Safety of Single-Use

Another recent webinar on 5/28/20 from Ecology Center in Berkeley discusses COVID and Disposables. You can watch a recording of it here.

Thank you to the coffee shop owners for their input, and for being such great partners in our campaign! If you are a coffee shop and would like to provide input to this article, please contact us.

The answer is not simple, and it may continue to change over the next year or so. Let’s remember that these are difficult times for everyone, and we need to be patient and compassionate, while we continue to promote the benefits of avoidance, reuse and recycling. And remember to tip more than you normally do, to help out the shops during this time, and for taking on added risk with customer interactions.

If single-use disposables are here to stay for the near term, consider these other factors to reduce your environmental impact (while still supporting your local coffee shop)

  • Cups
    • Compostable (must be composted at your home however)
    • Made from recycled content
  • Sleeves
    • Say NO to the cardboard sleeve and bring your own sleeve if needed
  • Stirring straw
    • Say NO to the straw and bring your own straw
    • Encourage the shops to use alternative biodegradable or compostable straws (like paper, pasta, bamboo, etc)
  • Lids
    • Say NO to the lid and pour the coffee directly into your own container (or be very careful when you drink it without a lid!)

We’ll continue to update this page as we learn new information. Please contact us if we missed something…