Local coffee shop plans to eliminate one of their largest contributors of waste: the disposable coffee cup

Bill Barrett began his career working for a non-profit, the Guelph International Resource Centre, where he brought his understanding of global issues to the local community. Inspired by a personal mission to address tropical and temperate deforestation through fair-trade coffee and co-operative structures, Bill started a worker co-op in downtown Guelph, later partnering with a local café worker co-op. In 1997, when they purchased and set up a coffee roaster, Planet Bean was born. Due to Planet Bean’s ecological sensitivity, Bill has always wanted to tackle the unavoidable waste that take-out cups produce – as they are the single largest contribution to the non-recyclable waste stream. Planet Bean consistently looks at social, economic, and environmental justice issues and transfers them into practice by doing something that is not just reflective but transformational.

Bill wanted to create a system with similarities to the bottle return program at beer stores. A customer would come in and purchase a coffee in a reusable cup with a deposit, have a coffee, and bring the cup back the next day to either get a clean cup or their deposit back. As a previous Innovation Guelph (IG) client, Bill knew the Seeding Our Food Future (SOFF) program was the perfect opportunity to initiate the returnable cup program.  With the help of another IG client, Fill it Forward (the designers of the cups), Bill has developed the “Re-Cup” program for Planet Bean.  As a business model, Re-Cup has a lot of potential to expand across Guelph and even Southern Ontario. Bill would love to see this pilot take off and have other cafés in Guelph join the movement to eliminate disposable coffee cup waste.

The SOFF grant enabled Bill to purchase an inventory of cups and establish a sustainable business model with Fill it Forward’s cups. Together they have determined that the double-walled stainless-steel cup is the best option as it is not only durable and long-lasting, but also completely recyclable. The lid has been one of the more complex challenges when developing this program, as many people do not want to reuse lids and Planet Bean wants to avoid using a disposable lid. Instead, they will be selling reusable lids and customers will have to purchase a lid and bring it in, which has similarities to their current travel cup program. Because of the pandemic Planet Bean has had to push back the launch date of the Re-Cup program but are hoping to roll it out by Spring 2021. To ensure that the program will be safe, they worked with a food scientist to go over the process of cleaning and sanitizing and determined that it is a viable option.

For Bill, circularity means system efficiencies with the least amount of waste and the most sustainable practices. While Planet Bean purchases the most ecologically and sustainably manufactured cups on the market, they still only have a lifespan of about 10 minutes until they are ‘forever waste’ – a reference to the linear model of take-make-dispose. In contrast, a circular business model closes the loop and mimics processes found in the natural world. Bill shares the example of taking the coffee grinds they produce and giving them to farmers to put back into the ground to fertilize plants which will then produce food to eat. He also highlights the importance of not only the environmental benefits of circularity, but the sociological and economic impacts that need to be considered. Bill believes that the most efficient circular models are the ones that consider gender, race, wages, working conditions, and other social and economic factors.


Photo courtesy of Planet Bean