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Redefining Business

Free Mug Share Program Looks to Make a Home in Berkeley

Written by Berklee Welsh, BS ’20

As U.C. Berkeley’s Zero Waste by 2020 goal quickly approaches, an all-hands-on-deck approach is needed to make significant progress on achieving the stated 90% diversion rate throughout campus. A multi-stakeholder collaboration, led by SERC (U.C. Berkeley’s Student Environmental Resource Center), the Ecology Center, and TBID (Telegraph Business Improvement District) has led to the implementation of Vessel – a reusable cup service provider, available throughout campus and in the surrounding area.  

We invited PhD student Jessica Heiges to speak to the launch of this new pilot program available across campus (slated to run through May, with the intention of evaluating performance throughout), regarding the impact it can have, both at Haas and in the broader Berkeley community.

Photo by Berkeleyside

How was the idea for Vessel born, and what does participation in the program entail?

Vessel Founder Dagny Tucker saw a clear gap in the rhetoric and actions of those around her and saw the single use cup as the perfect culprit to address this issue.  “Ubiquitous, highly visible, and the status quo choice that carries damaging impacts throughout its lifecycle…”, the disposable cup offered the perfect opportunity for Tucker to make a change. After successfully launching in New York City in 2016, and more recently in Boulder, CO, Vessel is looking to bring the same achievement to Berkeley.

Upon signing up at https://app.vesselworks.org/signup, all customers have the opportunity to order their coffee/tea/fountain drink (or boba!) at participating businesses and “check out” a Vessel (a stainless steel insulated cup with a silicone lid), free of charge, by taking a photo of a QR code via their smartphone. Then, they can return the Vessel to any of the participating businesses or a few other convenient drop-off locations within 5 days.  The service is completely free of charge, however if the customer fails to return the Vessel within 5 days, they will be charged $15. 

How did you become involved with the implementation of Vessel, and how has your experience with the CRB contributed to this?

I was hired as an intern by a collaboration of SERC, the Ecology Center, and TBID to assist in the launch of the Vessel program by garnering awareness and involvement in the project from students, staff, faculty, and community members.

So many of my experiences with the CRB have contributed to my overall interest in sustainability and transitioning to zero waste, most notably the Sustainable Food Initiative, the Patagonia Case Competition, and the wide availability of sustainability-focused courses available at Haas.  The CRB has presented a bevy of speakers, workshops, and courses, each with the opportunity to collaborate with and learn from leaders in the space.

That experience made me particularly excited about this pilot program as it is clear that it is a unique opportunity where all relevant stakeholders — city council, local nonprofits, chamber of commerce, community organizers, sustainability-oriented businesses — came together and truly collaborated to ensure the long-term success of an equitable, but also profitable zero waste solution. 

Photo by Berkeleyside

Do you foresee the transition to Vessel to be difficult for the average person?

Ecology Center Executive Director Martin Borque hopes that “it will become so normal that folks don’t think of it any differently… how they currently don’t think about a disposable one.” Over 41 million cups are disposed of in Berkeley each year; while there are arguably more important items to think about, that is a lot of cups! The Vessel team hopes that the pilot will be successful on and off campus and show that a city-wide program can work and even spread to other cities in the region.

Does adopting Vessel help consumers also start the search for other zero-waste solutions in their life?

“We recognize that putting all of the burdens to change on the customer is not necessarily fair, nor realistic…the exciting part about Vessel is that it works with cafes to incorporate reusables into their service offering, becoming seamless for both the business and the customer.”

That is the intent. By providing infrastructure around legislation that disincentivizes single use disposables, we’re showing that adopting a less wasteful life is easy. Implementation of Vessel not only provides community members with a cost-free way to reduce their waste but also offers an alternative to the Berkeley Single Use Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance $0.25 fee incurred on every disposable cup provided beginning January 1, 2020. Designed to reduce the use and disposal of single use foodware items throughout Berkeley, the ordinance’s first phase went into effect on March 27, 2019 as part of the city of Berkeley’s Zero Waste Goal.  

We encourage individuals to actively seek out the areas of their life that are most wasteful and unpack why it is so — legislation, infrastructure, default option — then work towards addressing the issue and implementing a solution (for themselves, their friends and family, and their community). 

When can I begin using Vessel and where is it available?

Vessel is launching in Berkeley on Wednesday, September 18, 2019.  The service is currently available at the following providers (with more to come!): Caffe Strada, Cafe Zeb, Cafe Think, Press Cafe, Free Speech Movement, Musical Offering Cafe, Northside Cafe, Brewed Awakening Cafe, and Babette Cafe (on and off campus). Sign up here: https://app.vesselworks.org/signup

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