Cup Loan Programs | An In-Depth Look at an Innovative Solution for Reducing Waste


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With climate change and sustainability at the forefront of many people’s minds, communities all over the world are looking for impactful ways to reduce waste and encourage reusability. One such solution that has been gaining major traction is the implementation of cup loan programs by cafés, restaurants, and other beverage purveyors.

In this in-depth blog post, we’ll take a close look at cup loan programs—what they are, how they work, who offers them, and the many benefits they provide. We’ll also explore the environmental impact of single-use cups versus reusables, and why cup loan programs are an important step in making our food and beverage culture more sustainable.

What Are Cup Loan Programs?

Cup loan programs allow customers to borrow reusable cups, mugs, or tumblers when purchasing drinks rather than using disposable paper or plastic cups. The borrower pays a small deposit fee when they check out a cup, usually between $1-5 depending on the business. They can return the cup to any participating location and get their deposit back. The cups are cleaned and sanitized between uses so they are ready for the next person to borrow.

Cup loan programs are growing rapidly, especially in eco-conscious regions like the Pacific Northwest. Major chains like Starbucks, as well as local cafés and restaurants, are getting on board. Customers appreciate the convenience of just having to pay a deposit versus remembering to bring their own mug. Plus, they like that borrowing a cup drastically reduces waste compared to using a disposable cup.

How Do Cup Loan Programs Work?

The process of borrowing a cup from a loan program is quite straightforward:

1. Request a Loaner Cup

When ordering a beverage from a participating business, the customer simply asks for a “loaner cup” instead of a disposable cup. Some places even ask customers at the register if they want to borrow a cup.

2. Pay a Small Deposit

When checking out, the customer pays a small deposit, usually between $1-5 depending on the business. This deposit incentivizes bringing the cup back.

3. Return Cup to Get the Deposit Back

The borrower can return the cup to any participating location—it doesn’t have to be the original one. When returned, the unique ID number on the cup is scanned. This tracks that it has been returned so the borrower can get their deposit back.

4. Cups Are Cleaned and Re-Circulated

After scanning, the returned cups go into a bin to be washed and sanitized before going back into circulation for the next customer.

The logistics of recycling the cups and tracking deposits can seem complicated, but businesses that run cup loan programs have found efficient systems to make it a smooth process. The small deposit fee covers the labor and supplies needed to sustainably operate the programs.

Why Are Cup Loan Programs Important?

Switching from disposable to reusable cups through cup loan programs provides enormous environmental benefits. Here are some key reasons these programs are an important innovation:

Greatly Reduce Waste:

Disposable paper and plastic cups contribute major amounts of waste—billions end up in landfills every year in the US alone. Replacing a significant number of these with reusable cups makes a huge impact.

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Promote Sustainability:

Cup loan programs get customers engaged in sustainability and make it easy for them to reduce waste. This drives momentum for businesses to implement more eco-friendly practices.

Save Money:

It’s cheaper for retailers to offer loaner cups than continually purchase disposable cups and lids. The small deposit covers cleaning and sanitizing costs.

Create Jobs:

Managing cup return bins and cleaning the reusable cups creates local green jobs. Cup loan programs support employment while reducing environmental impact.

Increase Customer Loyalty:

Customers feel good patronizing businesses making an effort to be eco-friendly. Cup loan programs are a great way to boost brand image and customer loyalty.


Early adopters of cup loan programs motivate other businesses to implement similar initiatives. They set an important example for reducing waste industry-wide.

The Environmental Impact of Disposable vs Reusable Cups

To understand why cup loan programs are so beneficial, it helps to look at the full environmental impacts of disposable cups versus reusables.

Disposable Cup Waste and Resources

  • 500 billion disposable cups are used globally each year
  • 29 billion disposable cups are used in the US annually
  • 14 million trees are cut down to produce paper cups each year in the US
  • 4 billion gallons of water used to produce paper cups annually in the US
  • Petroleum-based plastic cups don’t biodegrade and release toxins when produced
  • Billions of cups wind up in landfills occupying space for centuries
  • Needs new cup materials extracted for every single use

Reusable Cup Sustainability

  • Made from durable materials like ceramic, glass, stainless steel
  • Require far fewer resources to produce than billions of disposable cups
  • Cleaned and sanitized between uses, designed for a long life span
  • Often made from recycled materials like recycled plastic or glass
  • Eliminate waste from single-use cups with each borrow
  • One reusable cup can displace hundreds of disposable cups

As this comparison shows, switching to reusable cups has monumental sustainability benefits by drastically reducing waste, emissions, resource extraction, and pollution. Cup loan programs make this switch convenient and accessible.

Even small changes can have a big collective impact. If each person replaced just 10 disposable cups per month with loaner cups, over 1 billion cups could be eliminated from landfills annually. The global potential to reduce waste with the wide adoption of cup loan programs is massive.

Major Chains Offering Cup Loan Programs

A growing number of major restaurant chains and cafés are now offering cup loan programs, especially in regions where sustainability is prioritized. Here are some notable examples:

  • Starbucks – Starbucks launched a reusable cup program in 2018 at locations in Seattle and Vancouver. Customers pay a $1 deposit to borrow cups and get free brewed coffee or tea refills during each visit. The program has expanded to stores in San Francisco, New York, Boston, Washington DC, and London.
  • McDonald’s – Select McDonald’s in the UK, France, and Switzerland provide reusable cup programs. Customers pay a deposit equivalent to $1.60 to borrow a cup and return it to any location.
  • Pret A Manger – This quick-service food chain with over 500 global locations has tested a $1 deposit-based cup loan program. Customers can return borrowed cups to any Pret location to reclaim their deposit.
  • Tim Hortons – In 2020, Tim Hortons launched a new cup loan program at locations across Ontario, Canada. Customers pay a $1 deposit and scan cups for return at smart kiosks.
  • Costa Coffee – Owned by Coca-Cola, Costa Coffee is piloting reusable cup programs across the UK. Borrowed cups are returned to in-store collection bins to be sanitized and re-used.
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These major chains prove that large-scale cup loan programs are not only possible but commercially viable. As sustainability becomes more crucial for brands, reusable cup borrowing is likely to expand across stores globally.

Small Cafés & Restaurants With Cup Loan Programs

Beyond big chains, many small independently-owned cafés and restaurants have also championed cup loan programs. Implementing these programs allows local businesses to show their environmental values. Some leading examples include:

  • Coffeehouse Five in Brooklyn, NY
  • Reverie Coffee Roasters in Massachusetts
  • Bitty & Beau’s Coffee locations across the US
  • Scout Coffee in Oregon
  • Huckleberry Roasters in California
  • Borrowed Brews Cafe in Maryland
  • The Mill Coffee & Tea in Iowa

These small businesses demonstrate that cup loan programs can be successful on a local community scale. They provide a model for cafés and coffee shops in cities everywhere to reduce waste by offering reusable cup borrowing options. Even independent shops with few locations can make an environmental impact and build customer loyalty.

Other Creative Uses for Cup Loan Programs

While most cup loan programs are currently offered by cafés and restaurants, there is potential to expand them creatively to other contexts. A few innovative examples include:

  • College campuses implementing cup loan programs across dining halls and cafeterias to engage students in sustainability. Students pay deposits that provide credits toward sustainable supplies and environmental projects.
  • Music and art festivals provide reusable cup loans to reduce disposable waste. Attendees get back their deposits by returning cups to bin stations. Clean-up crews support this system between acts.
  • Sports stadiums and arenas loaning cups to fans at concessions stands. Deposits fund eco-initiatives and fans can keep cups as souvenirs after events.
  • Gyms loaning cups to members for smoothies and sports drinks within facilities. Return bins stationed around offer convenience.
  • Local governments partner with businesses to launch citywide cup loan programs. This allows returning cups anywhere in a municipality and builds community engagement.

The reuse potential of cup loan programs is far-reaching. Any facility that serves beverages could integrate this creative solution to make sustainability accessible.

How to Get Your Own Cup Loan Program Started

If you own or manage a café, restaurant, or other facility and want to implement an eco-friendly cup loan program, here are some tips to get started:

  • Research what reusable cup materials make the most sense for your needs, including durability, safety, and cost. Popular options are polypropylene, glass, ceramic, bamboo, and stainless steel.
  • Determine ideal cup deposit fees by factoring in labor, cleaning supplies, cup losses, and profit needs. $1-5 tends to work for most small operations.
  • Establish effective in-house cup cleaning and tracking procedures. Standard dishwashers often work well for cleaning. Assign staff roles for smooth operations.
  • Allow returns to any location for convenience. Unique ID numbers on cups enable tracking deposits across multiple sites.
  • Promote the program in-store, online, and on receipts/packaging. Marketing the eco benefits boosts participation. Offer small discounts or rewards for borrowers.
  • Collaborate with other local businesses to create multi-location programs. These maximize opportunities for customers to borrow and return cups.
  • Analyze success and make improvements. Survey customers and employees for feedback.
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With some preparation, cup loan programs are feasible for most cafés, shops, and facilities to institute. The more participation grows, the bigger the positive impact.

The Future of Cup Loan Programs

Cup loan programs have gained immense traction over the past few years, but there is still massive potential for growth. As sustainability becomes more crucial for society and businesses, reusable cup borrowing will likely explode in popularity in the coming decades.

Here are some possible ways cup loan programs could continue evolving:

  • National café chains like Starbucks and Pret A-Manger expanding programs to locations across multiple countries
  • Small local businesses forming reusable cup coalitions within communities
  • Cup loan programs integrating with mobile apps for cashless transactions and user profiles
  • Major fast-food chains like McDonald’s adopting reusable cups globally
  • Arenas, festivals, gyms, schools, and more outside the café sector joining the movement
  • Cities subsidizing reusable cups and washing facilities to enable free wide-scale borrowing
  • National standards created for cup materials, cleaning processes, and tracking systems
  • States passing laws prohibiting or taxing businesses that use disposable cups
  • Customers prefer and seek out cafés/shops with cup loan programs
  • Normalizing reusability to phase disposables out of food/drink culture

The success of existing programs proves the enormous potential for growth. Within 10 years, borrowing reusable cups could be the norm at most cafés, restaurants, and events. As this happens, billions of disposable cups will be displaced, significantly reducing waste.

The movement is just getting started. With more innovation and participation from businesses and customers, cup loan programs can drive a drastic reduction in disposable cup waste globally. The simple act of replacing one-time use with borrowing and reusing can have a monumental collective impact.


As environmentalism rises in priority, cup loan programs have emerged as an effective solution for reducing waste at cafés, restaurants, and other facilities. They provide an easy way for customers to switch from disposable to reusable cups, eliminating huge amounts of single-use waste.

With major chains like Starbucks and small businesses alike embracing cup loans, they continue to gain traction. Their benefits are numerous—slashing waste, saving money, creating jobs, engaging customers, and setting an example for other businesses.

Scaling up cup loan programs represents an easy route to making our food and beverage culture more sustainable. They demonstrate that simple reusable changes collectively have an immense impact. As more sectors and regions adopt cup borrowing models, we can significantly cut back on the billions of disposable cups polluting our planet each year.

Hello, my name is Joseph Samaritan and I am a blogger who writes about various topics of interest, I have a passion for learning and sharing knowledge through my blog, I welcome feedback and comments on my posts and I look forward to engaging with you, thank you for visiting my blog and I hope you enjoy reading it.


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