Single-Use Products Now in Big Demand

Pandemic taps the brakes on efforts to eliminate plastic food containers and bags.

March 17, 2020

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Just as the foodservice industry began actively working to eliminate single-use items—such as disposable cups, containers and plastic bags—along comes coronavirus.

The new pandemic has thrown a wrench into the reusables movement, reports Nation’s Restaurant News. Although numerous foodservice providers had begun moving away from disposable materials, they’ve had to rethink their policies during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last week, Starbucks and Dunkin’ announced that they would no longer let customers bring in their reusable cups or mugs from home.  “We will continue to honor the 10-cent discount for anyone who brings in a personal cup or asks for 'for here' ware," Starbucks said in a statement two weeks ago.

Other large restaurant brands have followed suit by banning cups, mugs or other containers that a customer might bring in from outside the store. Tim Horton’s has banned personal mugs and cups, and Subway has removed dine-in sandwich baskets and serving trays.

C-stores also are restricting use of bring-your-own cups. 7-Eleven said it would temporarily discontinue the use of personal cups for hot and cold dispensed beverages but would still honor the discount for anyone who brings in a personal cup to participating stores. Casey’s said it haS temporarily discontinued the use of refillable mugs and cups in its stores in the interest of the wellbeing of guests. Hy-Vee also announced a similar move, saying “we need our customers to use a new cup each time.”

For some restaurants and cafes, the zero-waste movement is an important part of their brand identity. At the end of 2019, the 72-unit coffeeshop chain Blue Bottle Café in Oakland, California, announced a test that would remove all disposable containers and cups from Bay Area-locations. It was anticipated that the zero-waste effort would spread throughout the chain by the end of 2020, but early this month, that goal came to a grinding halt with the unforeseen health crisis.

“We have temporarily suspended accepting personal cups at all our cafes,” Blue Bottle said in a letter to customers. “We are serving all to-go orders in our disposable cups for the time being.” The chain plans to adjust their policies as the situation changes daily.

At independent restaurants and cafes and small chains, the reusables movement has simply taken a detour.

Nossa Familia Coffee, a Portland, Oregon-based group with four cafes, has set a goal of becoming zero-waste. It will continue to distribute (fully sanitized) for-here mugs, but will not directly handle personal mugs, which customers bring in to receive a 25-cent discount on their coffee order. Instead, customers can bring in their personal mugs to receive the discount, and baristas will pour the drink into a separate container that the customer can then use to transfer to their own mug.

Coronavirus Resources

NACS has compiled resources to help the convenience retail community navigate the COVID-19 crisis. For news updates and guidance, visit our coronavirus resources page.