Students ask, ‘How could reusable coffee cups become standard practice?’

By: Alison Fromme
Two students with laptops sit near a window in a coffee shop and interview the manager.

Undergraduates Jamie Jeong and Claire Ahn interview a manager of an Ithaca coffee shop (photo by Keaghlan Bradley).

On a recent afternoon last fall, undergraduates Claire Ahn and Jamie Jeong went out for coffee—but not for a study break. They were on a research mission for a project for their Business Design class, taught by Denise Ramzy, senior lecturer in the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business.

More than 50 billion disposable coffee cups are used in the US each year, but only a tiny fraction are recycled. For their project, Ahn, Jeong, and a third teammate, Cherim Kang, rallied around the question, “What if reusable coffee cups became standard practice in Ithaca so that all local cafes became disposables-free?”

“Living in Collegetown, where many restaurants exclusively use disposables, I felt like this project was something that I could relate to,” said Ahn. To research the feasibility of different solutions, the students interviewed managers of coffee shops in Ithaca.

At Gimme! Coffee on State Street in Ithaca, Ahn and Jeong interviewed retail manager Rachel McDonald about how the shop accommodates customers who bring their own reusable cups. They learned that about 25% of customers bring their own mugs, and they receive a 10% discount for doing so.

“Besides just answering our questions, the interviews felt collaborative,” said Ahn. “We worked with the coffee shops to come up with our final reusable cup system.”

The students also researched reusable cup systems operating in other cities around the world, developed user profiles for potential customers, and learned about cafe workflows and logistics.

Ahn, Jeong, and Kang proposed a central reusable coffee cup system, where standardized QR-labeled reusable cups would be available for use at local cafes. Customers could return them at bins throughout town, and they would be washed and stored at a central warehouse. An app would help customers find locations for stores and bins, as well as provide a marketing opportunity for cafes offering sales and discounts.

Kat McCarthy, deputy director of Tompkins County’s department of recycling and materials management, met with this team and the rest of the class at the beginning of the fall semester to discuss the “fast disposables” problem. At the end of the semester, students shared their proposals with her.

“The group not only thought about how the project might be implemented gradually over time,” said McCarthy, “but also developed concepts to be incorporated into an app that would allow for tracking materials while incentivizing participation.”

Each student group approached the issue differently. For example, one team focused on reusable take-out containers. McCarthy said their proposal to use existing infrastructure like the washing facilities in the dining halls was especially interesting.

“Student enthusiasm really built over the course of the semester,” said Ramzy. “Especially as students realized how many stakeholders were genuinely interested in bringing reusable dishware to Tompkins County and how absolutely feasible it is when you start breaking it down into smaller projects like cups across all coffee shops or dishware for Ithaca’s numerous festivals.”

This class was part of the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management Grand Challenges senior year curriculum, where students learn and practice skills related to project management, client relationships, and community engagement while addressing United Nations Sustainable Development Goals such as responsible consumption and production.

“The biggest thing that I learned from this class was how to work with real-world stakeholders and involve cost in our design,” said Ahn. “Having those factors in this project grounded it in real life.”