As San Mateo County eateries face new laws to curb throwaway plastics, the county is partnering with a new startup to bring reusable takeout cups to local shops.

A barista prepares a hot drink in an Okapi Reusables insulated cup. Courtesy Jason Quigley.

About 120 billion paper, plastic and foam disposable cups are thrown away each year in the U.S., according to Clean Water Action and the Clean Water Fund. But when was the last time you thought to bring a travel mug to your favorite cafe? 

“There are cafes that are frustrated with the problem, but they don’t have great alternatives,” says Emily Chueh, co-founder of Okapi Reusables, a reusable cup startup that’s working with the San Mateo County Office of Sustainability to help restaurants cut their reliance on single-use plastics for takeout beverages. Okapi Reusables began last year in Portland, where about 20 cafes are now participating in the reusable cup program.   

Some cafes do offer bring-your-own cup programs, but even then it’s a small proportion of people who actually remember to bring their own cups, Chueh says.

Through Okapi Reusables, customers pay a $10 one-time fee and download an app. They scan a QR code at the counter of participating cafes and are then able to check out one of the Okapi reusable cups behind the counter to take home for two weeks. Some cafes give discounts to people who borrow the reusable cups; Urban Ritual, for example, offers 20% off.  

Okapi has received a $16,000 grant from the county’s Office of Sustainability to build out its program at local cafes and boba shops. So far, the program has launched at four locations in San Mateo: 3 Bees Coffee, Urban Ritual, Meet Fresh and Heere Tea.  Shops in Half Moon Bay will be added soon. 

This process is aimed at making it simpler for both restaurant workers and patrons to work with reusable dishes, says Chueh.

A creme brulee milk tea from Urban Ritual in San Mateo is served in an Okapi Reusables cup. Courtesy Okapi Reusables.

“This is a way to make it a little bit easier for customers who didn’t plan to go to the cafe that day,” she says. “They have a clean cup waiting for them at the cafe already.”

The program offers two types of cups: an insulated stainless steel cup for hot drinks and a transparent borosilicate glass cup for iced drinks and boba. Iced drinks, Chueh says, account for about 75% of the drinks now sold at Starbucks. 

Cups are provided to cafes at no upfront cost, with fees based on the number of cups borrowed and generally less than the cost of disposable cups. They  come in standard beverage sizes of 8, 12, and 16 ounces, and they’re accessible behind the counter.

“Cafes appreciate there is a way to do this that fits within their operations,” she says. 

While the program is still growing, there are customers who say they’ve already saved the equivalent of about 100 disposable cups. 

“We’re really still used to buying something and then using it and throwing it away,” she says. “We’re introducing a new concept: a circular system.” 

The conversion will take time, Chueh expects, but she points to other places that have successful reusable takeout programs to assert that it’s possible. The Green Caffeen brand in Australia operates a similar model with coffee cups and now has about 765 participating cafes, and Suppli in Toronto offers a similar model with reusable takeout food containers. 

“For the most part,” she says, “people take time to change habits.”

Countywide efforts to cut throwaway plastic

Okapi Reusables’ program is one of several initiatives that San Mateo County’s Office of Sustainability has taken on to help restaurants cut disposable plastic use. 

Last October, laws passed by most cities in San Mateo County took effect to curb restaurants’ reliance on single-use plastic. The effort is two-pronged: For dine-in meals, restaurants must offer customers washable reusable dishware – generally, dishes made of metal, ceramic or glass; and for takeout meals, they must offer fiber-based compostable food containers. Plastic food containers, including technically compostable bioplastics and polystyrene foodware like Styrofoam, are not allowed. In addition, disposable silverware should be dispensed one at a time and only upon request and should not be bundled. 

Communities that are not yet participating include Woodside, Menlo Park, Portola Valley and East Palo Alto, while Redwood City’s ordinance won’t take effect until October.  

The county’s “Foodware Aware” initiative has been focused largely on educating and supporting food facilities to make needed changes rather than enforcement, says Christopher Slafter, senior sustainability specialist. 

“Our mission here is to reduce or eliminate single-use foodware pollution wherever possible,” Slafter says. According to street trash surveys, he says, the bulk of single-use plastic pollution comes from foodware items, which can contaminate stormwater, beaches, oceans and compost streams.  

The county has contracted with consultants to alert restaurants about the new policies and is offering a mini-grant program in which food facilities can receive up to $300 to buy accepted compostable takeout containers or washable, durable and reusable foodware for dine-in meals. Food facilities owned by Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC), LGBTQIA+ individuals or employee-owned facilities can receive double those funds for up to $600. 

Right now, there is still room for a couple more cafes or boba shops to sign up with Okapi Reusables, says Collette Sanchez, a sustainability specialist working with the county’s Foodware Aware program. “There’s a lot of interest for coastal cities because of their proximity to the ocean and the waterways,” she says. 

“We’ve put a real focus into doing the heavy lifting up front so we don’t just tell a food facility ‘We would like you to make these changes,'” Slafter says. “Rather, we thought ahead of all the things that might be a challenge for you and we will present these resources.”

Kate Bradshaw

Kate Bradshaw

Kate Bradshaw reports food news and feature stories all over the Peninsula, from south of San Francisco to north of San José. Since she began working with Embarcadero Media in 2015, she's reported on everything from Menlo Park's City Hall politics to Mountain View's education system. She has won awards from the California News Publishers Association for her coverage of local government, elections and land use reporting.

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