This Startup Is Coming for Your Paper Coffee Cup

Courtesy of Vessel
Courtesy of Vessel

After I ordered a latte, I knew I’d saved the world when an adorable illustrated dolphin appeared on my phone. There was a rainbow flying out of its fin, and a speech balloon over its little dolphin head that said, “Thank YOU!”

I swear this wasn’t a hallucination.

Ok, sure, the part about me saving the world is a bit of a stretch. But a dolphin did appear on my phone, and I was doing my part for the environment. After I ordered an almond milk latte from Boulder, Colorado’s Boxcar Coffee Roasters, I signed up for an account on Vessel, which thanked me with a happy dolphin, and also tasked the barista with pouring my drink into a slick, branded, stainless steel travel-size mug. The non-profit Vessel has one major mission: to completely eradicate the single-use paper cup from your local coffee shop. But its larger mission is to make you think about the consequences of your decisions.

Even drinking one single paper cup full of coffee has consequences

When you go to a coffee shop, you probably don’t think twice about the paper cup containing your drink. I certainly didn’t, and I drink enough to-go coffee to caffeinate several med school students. But buying a coffee in a paper cup is a choice. And for every one of your actions, there are unintended consequences. Vessel founder Dagny Tucker, who has a Ph.D. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution, has spent the last 20 years of her life thinking about them. “I live much more in that world than I would care to admit!” she said. “I’m constantly in the tyranny of choice.”

After Tucker spent time “looking at the intersection of violent conflict and sustainability” and teaching design at Parsons, she found that there “was a significant disconnect between the far-reaching impacts of seemingly innocuous daily choices.” Coming up with Vessel turned out to be a solid intersection of her interests: sustainability, design, and those damn unintended consequences. “I looked to find the most highly visible sign of disposability, and it was the paper cup,” Tucker said. “It’s ubiquitous.”

And you might think, as I did, what’s the big deal? Don’t we have corporations belching toxic chemicals in the air to should worry about first? Who gives a shit about a few paper cups lined with plastic? “Globally, we’re looking at about 300 billion paper cups being landfilled every year,” she said. “In the US, the number is about 58 billion. If you start to consider the water, the energy, or if you want to look at it from a climate perspective with CO2 [emissions], it’s a pretty significant savings.”

Oh. Yeah, that’s quite a bit of waste. And it has a super simple fix: the stainless steel cup.

Courtesy of Vessel

The solution to paper cups is easy... and it involves happy dolphins

Here’s how Vessel works: walk into a coffee shop, order coffee, and say you want it in a Vessel. After you’ve signed up and given them your credit card through a mobile site (an app is forthcoming), you simply scan a QR code on the bottom of the stainless steel mug and they pour your drink into it. Oh, and you get to see an illustrated dolphin say thank you! Easy peasy.

If you bring the cup back within five days, there’s no charge. If you forget to return it, they charge you $15, though they’d rather you bring the cup back and check out another Vessel. “The cafe pays for each cup that goes out the door as opposed to the paper cups,” Tucker said, noting that it’s either less expensive or costs roughly the same as paper cups. Right now, eight coffee shops in Boulder use Vessel, but the plans are to roll out the stainless steel cups nationwide.

If you know anything about Boulder, it’s that it’s crunchier than a Butterfinger. If you know nothing about it, I got you. People here care about the environment. And even these Phish-loving, Tesla-driving, hemp-humpers use paper cups. “Even in a community like Boulder, the average coffee shop will have about 1000 pours a day, and see less than 10 people per day bring in their own cups.” Tucker said it’s because we’re busy, and it’s easy to forget your cup. And she’s right! I have at least five stainless steel mugs in my kitchen, and I never bring them.

But then I used Vessel. And when I dropped off my Vessel at Boxcar a couple days later, I brought in one of my own stainless steel mugs. They poured a cold brew into it, and I felt good about myself. Even though I didn’t use Vessel again, I made a choice I could be proud of. My action had an unintended consequence, but it was a positive one.

“Once one of our cups has been used 23 times, everything after that becomes an environmental benefit over a paper cup or a disposable plastic cup,” Tucker explained. “If you start to quantify those numbers, they get pretty big really fast. And this is the whole emphasis behind this, we’re all making these little choices every day, which, as individuals, don’t seem like a really big deal, but collectively turn into massive impacts.”

The future of the paper cup may resemble the fate of the plastic straw

“I think we’re getting to a point where the reality is that the cost of this convenience [of the paper cup] is starting to significantly outweigh the benefits,” Tucker said. She cited the plastic in the oceans as being a huge issue, and one that isn’t going away as our plastic use continues to increase. But last year, the European Union banned all single-use plastics and plastic straws are being banned in Berkeley and Los Angeles. The tide appears to be turning. Perhaps Vessel will become less of a “nice to have” for cafes and more of an essential service if municipalities turn their attention towards banning disposable cups.

The next time you order a coffee and are served it in a paper cup, maybe you won’t care that you throw it away 20 minutes later. Many don’t. Vessel was a game-changer for me not because it kept my coffee hot inside a free stainless steel cup, though I liked that. It was getting me to think about how my tiny, meaningless-seeming actions can have an effect.

Back in 2016, Vessel did some alpha testing of its stainless steel cup concept in NYC, and the people who used it reported something fascinating. “Someone who didn’t previously identify as sustainably-minded said that they started reconsidering all their single-use disposable habits,” Tucker said.

Vessel may end up completely changing the way we consume coffee in America, but its bigger goal might be changing how we think about trash.

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Lee Breslouer is a writer and editor based in Colorado. Follow him @LeeBreslouer for photos worth a thousand words that nonetheless all have captions with a thousand additional words.