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News / Life / Clark County Life

Vancouver coffee shops join program to reduce cup waste

Stainless-steel coffee cups can be borrowed, returned, reused — 'part of our vision of sustainability'

By Rachel Pinsky, for The Columbian
Published: May 5, 2023, 6:00am
2 Photos
Local coffee shops are rolling out a new program for customers who forget their reusable cups and want to borrow one.
Local coffee shops are rolling out a new program for customers who forget their reusable cups and want to borrow one. (Rachel Pinsky) Photo Gallery

Coffee shops around Vancouver are rolling out a new program for the well-intentioned among us who nonetheless forget our reusable mugs.

River Maiden, Seize the Bagel and Terrain Coffee Project have signed up with OKAPI Reusables in hopes of reducing the number of to-go cups piling up in landfills. Unlike other paper products, to-go cups are coated in plastic to prevent leaks and can’t be recycled or composted.

Emily Chueh and Deb Gray founded OKAPI Reusables during the pandemic when they noticed a spike in the number of takeout containers tossed in the trash. Their company is based in Portland and Mountain View, Calif.

OKAPI Reusables provides coffee shops stainless-steel cups for hot drinks in three sizes — 8, 12 or 16 ounces. The shops wash the cups and supply clean ones to participating customers, who download the OKAPI app and pay a one-time $10 fee. Customers then scan the QR code on the app to get clean cups for drinks at participating businesses. Cups must be returned at any place OKAPI is available within two weeks.

River Maiden (5301 E. Mill Plain Blvd.) was the first place in Vancouver to register for this program. Owner Melissa Layman was drawn to the simplicity and ease of joining. River Maiden pays 15 cents per cup, which works out to be the same price as the traditional to-go cup-sleeve-cap combo. River Maiden stores and sanitizes the stainless-steel cups.

“We tried so many things to decrease our cup waste,” Layman said. “All our food takeout is in compostable paper containers, but we couldn’t find compostable coffee cups that worked for us.”

Layman’s shop started the program in early March. River Maiden typically goes through 200-plus paper to-go cups a day. So far, River Maiden is using 20 to 30 OKAPI cups per day.

“I think more and more shops will sign up,” Layman said.

All four Seize the Bagel locations — Hazel Dell, Orchards, the Heights and Cascade Park — recently added OKAPI.

“Seize the Bagel is big on sustainability and local, so OKAPI fits within those goals,” said Vanessa Clark, manager at Seize the Bagel in Cascade Park (13215 S.E. Mill Plain Blvd., Suite C3).

That location goes through 70 to 120 paper coffee cups per day. So far, about three or four cups have been exchanged a week, Clark said.

Seize the Bagel owner Cindy Yamamura joined soon after seeing a post about OKAPI on River Maiden’s Instagram.

“This is part of our vision of sustainability,” Yamamura said. “We do the composting program with Waste Connections. We offer second-chance baked goods to customers, third-chance baked goods to the Clark County food banks. So we’re definitely on board.”

Seize the Bagel locations offered one day of free coffee for customers who registered when the chain launched the OKAPI program in late April. Customer response has been slow, but Yamamura isn’t deterred.

“The amount of paper and plastic used during the pandemic was huge. This kind of thing is what we need now. We need to get back on track,” she said.

Terrain Coffee Project at 106 W. Sixth St. in downtown Vancouver launched its OKAPI program in April. Owner Marty Lopes said signing up with the program was an easy decision because it’s user friendly for customers and simple for business owners. In addition, the reusable cups let coffee lovers truly savor their beverages, he said.

“The drinking experience is so much better than paper cups, it’s ridiculous,” Lopes said.

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He has about 24 of his regular customers signed up and sees about three to five cup returns a day. The shop goes through about 75 paper cups a day, so Lopes has been looking for a way to cut down on this waste.

In addition to the cup program, Lopes started his own reusable option for bulk-bean buyers. Terrain’s dark, vacuum-sealed containers cost $26-$32. The first fill of roasted beans is 50 percent off, and subsequent fills are $2 off. The bins sold out, but Lopes expects a new shipment shortly.

I joined OKAPI by downloading the app on my phone and paying the one-time $10 fee before ordering an 8-ounce Americano at River Maiden. I scanned the QR code and showed it to the barista. Later that day, I brought my OKAPI cup to Terrain Coffee Project, where I scanned a QR code by the bin for dirty cups and dishes at the back of the shop. The app registered a return. A couple days later, I got a new cup for my 12-ounce latte at River Maiden.

I will definitely continue to use this program. I’ve already paid my $10, and the app is very easy to use. I can take a dirty cup into any participating business, drop it off and get a clean one. I also like the design of the stainless-steel OKAPI cup. It’s insulated and keeps coffee warm. Through the cup’s wide lip, I can get a good whiff of the rich scents coming from my espresso drink before every sip.

Rachel Pinsky: couveeats@gmail.com