Saving the World One Cup at a Time
By Lynn O’Neill

80 BILLION. That’s the number of single-serve cups Americans toss away each year. That number nearly doubles worldwide at 146 billion. Now imagine that each one of those cups thrown out were to fertilize into a plant. Such an initiative would mean that our everyday consumption would automatically revegetate ecosystems on their own, resulting in reduced CO2 emissions, improved air quality and decreased effects of global warming.

This ideal premise was the driving force behind compostable cup company Reduce. Reuse. Grow (R.R.G.). Company founder, Alex Henige, saw that one of the largest issues our environment faces today is our high rate of consumption of goods. “I think as consumers, many of us are unaware of where our trash ends up and how much waste each one of us produces,” Henige said.

Over the past several decades, rising popularity of coffee shops has become synonymous with American culture. “I wanted to enter the market of compostable goods with the coffee cup because local coffeehouses serve as community hubs where conversations spark, and our goal is to have our product open a dialog about individuals’ environmental impact.”

The most common misconception about paper cups is that because they’re indeed “paper” it’s easily recyclable, and therefore the more “green” option. However, this is untrue. For the sake of durability, standard paper cups are lined with oil-based coating called polyethylene.

While many of us believe paper is a better option to styrofoam, studies have shown that in terms of production and renewability, the paper cup is just as harmful to the environment. The polyethylene liner excludes paper cups from composting and recycling at standard centers and can take as long as 50 years to decompose. “Our compostable cups are made completely of biodegradable materials. The liner we use is plant-based and made up of sugar cane, soy, corn and other glucose waste.” Henige continues, “Our cups are able to not only decompose in as little as 30 days, which is quicker than many of our competitors, but also tend to have a longer shelf life – making it a greater value to our customers.”

Henige’s awareness of the “paper cup problem” came to him while attending Cal Poly. His landscape architecture senior project challenged him to create the precursor to the R.R.G.’s current product line. Henige’s original biodegradable seeded coffee cup was conceptually similar to seeded paper products available on the market today. Once the product has fulfilled its intended use, customers are encouraged to take the product and replant within their own gardens or within their local community. R.R.G. offered the extra option for consumers to dispose their cups at designated trash receptacles that would be given back to R.R.G.for planting within a local landscape restoration site.

The R.R.G. seeded cups were very successful in stirring up interest and even created a bit of a buzz on the internet after the Huffington Post spotlighted the project on their website. Henige found that the product had one major flaw in its distribution. “The problem with the seeded cup was the lack of control we had in terms of where those seeds ended up,” said Henige. “Coffee cups are essentially a “to-go” product, and the seeded cups held a very high potential of introducing non-native plants into a region.” In light of this potential hazard, Henige chose to pivot and focus on creating a 100% compostable line that he could combine with the Buy a Cup, Grow a Plant program, and put in place as a solution to offset its consumer waste footprint.

R.R.G.’s simple yet revolutionary Buy a Cup, Grow a Plant program is what sets them apart from other compostable goods companies. R.R.G. builds partnerships with each of their customers to help restore landscapes within the community the product is sold in. For each cup that is purchased from the product line, R.R.G. plants a native plant at local restoration sites that have experienced devastation from wildfire, draught, infestation, and landslides.

To help spread the word about the operations and its customers’ contribution, informational materials and literature about the program is supplied to the establishment for them to place within their venue so that they can share with their customers what their double espresso purchase went towards. “I think what’s really great about the program is that it gives customers the sense that they are part of the solution,” said Henige. “It’s also a great ice breaker between operators and their customers.” By engaging the two parties with a common interest, the connection formed often leaves customers feeling invested, and creates loyalty to a business and increased foot traffic to their operation. A win-win for both patron and owner.

Successful sites already in place span from San Luis Obispo, CA to Boulder, CO. “Each compostable cup has our URL printed on it. Customers can locate information on all of our participating shops and on our restoration sites by visiting the website,” noted Henige.

While R.R.G. may be a small company still in its early stages of development, their commitment and contribution has been great. Since its inception, sites such as the Channel Islands and the Whale Rock Reservoir, have benefitted greatly from the program and its partnering affiliates who work with R.R.G. to restore the landscape. “Both the Channel Islands and the Whale Rock Reservoir are regions that have been inundated with invasive plants and erosion. Each location is in the process of having harmful plants removed and re-vegetated with native plants that are in part supplied through our program.”

The success of the R.R.G. has prompted Henige and his team to expand their line of paper coffee cups to cold cups to be used with iced coffees, cold tea beverages and juice drinks. In efforts to expand their business into more shops, R.R.G. has partnered exclusively with Jordano’s Foodservice to help with their growing distribution needs, as well as expose the new company to Jordano’s well established base of long-time loyal customers. “The partnership with Jordano’s has been great for us,” said Henige. “We’ve had some great opportunities to discuss our product one-on-one with their sales team during their January sales meeting. We’ve also had some good exposure to their customer base with the support of the Jordano’s sales team and by participating in their 2017 Road Show here in San Luis Obispo and at the Spring Golf Classic in Santa Barbara.”

“We think that this is a great product and we’re happy to bring the R.R.G. product line into our stock,” comments Jordano’s category manager, Larry Fiscalini. “Jordano’s as a company is very active in supporting our community and we’re proud to partner with a company looking to make a difference in the world.”

In the years to come, Reduce. Reuse. Grow. hopes to become a national provider of compostable goods, and Jordano’s commits to supporting the company every step of the way. As a company that started small here in Santa Barbara over 100 years ago, we understand the value of a strong partnership and we’re excited to be part of all their growing success.