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From Campus to Community: Systems for Reusable To-Go Coffee Cups

Piloting systems for to-go mug takeback on college campuses to then replicate these systems in a community context.

Photo of Post-Landfill Action Network (PLAN)
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What is PLAN?

The Post-Landfill Action Network (PLAN) is a non-profit dedicated to educating and inspiring students to reimagine and restructure wasteful systems on their college and university campuses. Through step-by-step advising and providing resources to our 80+ member campuses, PLAN supports students and administrators as they build systemic solutions from the ground up. These solutions range from campus composting and move-out programs to on-campus thrift stores, sharing closets, and makerspaces. 

What does a “reusable to-go coffee cup system” look like?

Disposable paper coffee cups and their plastic lids provide an excellent first target for a systemic solution to small format plastic items in communities worldwide. And what better a testing ground for these community solutions than a college or university  campus? Reusable alternatives -- stainless steel, glass, or durable plastic to-go mugs -- already exist, but aren’t always used because the systems don’t exist for a user-friendly experience. Building an accessible, infrastructurally-sound system for distribution, collection, cleaning, and re-circulation of these mugs will make reusables more convenient to consumers than their disposable counterpart. A system that incorporates reusable mugs into cafes’ everyday operations frees individual, busy consumers from needing to remember their own own to-go mug, thus making disposable to-go cups and lids obsolete. 

While this is a system that can be replicated in communities all over the world, we propose that college and university campuses serve as an ideal testing grounds for this idea.

While logistics will vary among campuses, the basics of a to-go mug system are detailed below. 

  • Every cafe and campus eatery has their disposable to-go cups replaced with a fleet of reusable to-go mugs.
  • At each cafe/eatery and throughout campus, there exist collection locations for these reusable mugs.
  • In order to get their drink "to-go," students and staff on campus must either bring a personal mug or deposit $5-$15 to receive a branded mug from the cafe or eatery. The deposit is charged to their campus account through a barcode on each mug
  • After enjoying their beverage purchase, customers can deposit their dirty to-go mug at a designated collection bin on campus or bring it back to their next cafe visit to be exchanged for a clean one with their next purchase.

To dig into the logistical challenges and possible solutions during the implementation of this program, see the FAQ document attached to this submission.

What will PLAN do to make it happen?

PLAN will tap its network to pick a diverse handful of campuses that are well-positioned to pilot this project. Our Campus Coordinators will work closely with students and staff on that campus to develop advertising and marketing materials, a logistical plan, and any other necessary resources. PLAN’s existing system of discounts with responsible companies will help get the start-up gear campuses need. PLAN staff will remain available during initial phases to troubleshoot the project. As it matures, Campus Coordinators will help ensure that there is proper leadership turnover for any role in the project that is filled by students.

Once the handful of pilot programs are up and running, PLAN staff will interview students and staff on these and any other relevant campuses to build case studies of their successes and challenges. The case studies will be fleshed out into best practices guides for other interested campuses to reference, as well as specific advising for PLAN staff to utilize in the assistance of future campuses’ projects.

How do we know this will work?

1. Precedent

Although no college or university campuses have eliminated disposable to-go cups, or implemented comparable programs with reusable ones, we do have an existing proof of concept: reusable to-go containers. Many colleges and universities use hard plastic to-go containers as an alternative to styrofoam in their dining halls. Much like the reusable to-go cup system detailed above, these to-go boxes are checked in and out of dining halls, washed in the dining hall dishwasher, and reused by different students and staff who have opted into the program. PLAN recently developed a best practices guide for campuses that wish to develop systems for reusable to-go food containers, and it has been widely used by our member campuses. See that guide here. A similar guide will result from the development of this project.

2. Proper implementation

PLAN’s extensive experience in supporting students and campuses through the development of other zero-waste projects -- compost programs, thrift stores, move-out programs, waste audits, and more -- mean that we are versed in the multi-stage planning process necessary to make this type of project a success. We already have systems in place for advising students and staff on volunteer recruitment and management, fundraising, budgeting, advertising and marketing, student leadership, and troubleshooting the logistical mishaps. PLAN’s support and advising will ensure that pilot campuses will not jump too hastily into this project without proper planning, marketing, and logistics in place.

How does this system get products to people without generating plastic waste?

The proposed cycle of reusable to-go mugs delivers drinks to consumers without the need for disposable paper cups or plastic lids. While it’s true that at present, most cafes will fill an individual reusable mug when asked (an “opt-in” system), such a model leaves the responsibility on consumers to obtain, bring, and clean their mug. One of PLAN’s missions is to elevate the conversation about zero-waste above this type of individual action. Building a system where reusables are the norm shifts responsibility to cafes and includes everyone. This system bridges the gap between resources available (reusable to-go mugs) and the communities, such as colleges and universities, that can optimize their use. 

Why colleges & universities?

Colleges and universities provide the perfect piloting ground for systems such as this for a variety of reasons. Because campuses strive to maintain their image as pioneers of environmental measures, they are incentivized to implement systems such as this one for reusable to-go mugs. Passionate students pressure administrators and communities to make change. The general college population, even if disinterested in environmental issues, is young, adaptable, and impressionable. Furthermore, colleges and universities tend to be managed in a comparatively bureaucratic way, making it feasible to implement this type of top-down infrastructural change.


PLAN is uniquely situated to help pilot a reusable coffee cup system, as well as to amplify tools and strategies for its success to other campuses across the US. Our network of 80+ member campuses, positions us as an authority on campus zero-waste, and our existing resources and advising provide a built-in means of spreading the idea. Our knowledge, experience, and rapport will help us ensure that pilot and future implementations succeed. 

Idea Title

From Campus to Community: Systems for Reusable To-Go Mugs

Company / Organization Name

Post Landfill Action Network (PLAN)


Where are you / your team located?

Dover, New Hampshire, USA

How does this Idea redesign unrecyclable small format plastic items that often end up as waste?

The proposed reusable to-go mug circulation process constructs a closed-loop material management system. By replacing an opt-in reusables option with a default one, we completely eliminate the need for disposable to-go cups and their plastic lids. Rather than redesigning the product, we are redesigning the system.

Which use cases does your Idea apply to?

All Case 3 Examples. Upon seeing a local university successfully implement a reusable to-go mug circulation system, Anne can learn from their example and implement a scaled-up version in Copenhagen. After graduating from a college where reusables were the norm, Lucas can pressure his favorite smoothie cafe to participate in a system circulation system for reusable cups. Nigel won’t encounter any more disposable plastic lids if they are no longer used by cafes near his park!

In what geographical context or area does your Idea plan to operate / solve?

PLAN has member colleges and universities across the USA and Canada. After piloting and troubleshooting this project on a few campuses, our network and advising will help spread the reusable to-go cup system to others.

How do you envision scaling up your Idea?

PLAN's connections and advising network uniquely situate us to implement reusable to-go mug systems on campuses, which themselves are microcosms of cities and municipalities. We will pilot this program with a few select campuses, using lessons learned to develop best practice resources and guides. Once tested and proven successful, we will expand this program to our network of over 100 campuses, uniquely positioned to take on these kinds of projects.

At what stage of development is your Idea?

  • Prototyping: You have conducted some small tests or experiments with prospective users and will continue developing idea through these tests.
  • Piloting: You have started to implement your solution as a whole with a first set of real users. You may have started to develop a business model for your idea, including identifying key customer segments, relevant partnerships, go-to-market strategy, and draft financials.

Please describe how becoming a Top Idea and working with the Think Beyond Plastics Accelerator Program will help to accelerate your solution.

The New Plastics Economy Accelerator Program will provide PLAN with vital resources and connections to expand our offerings to campuses. As we grow, advising on marketing, partnerships, and fundraising become more and more necessary for specific projects (such as the reusable coffee cup system) and for PLAN as a whole. Funding from the program will supplement our research on closed-loop material management systems on campuses, and provide project startup funding to our campus's programs.

Please describe from where your Idea emerged

PLAN was founded in 2013 by a recent UNH graduate who had created an innovative, closed-loop system for move-out waste on his campus. Now, we are a team of 8 full-time staff who spend our days developing programmatic solutions to campus waste and helping motivated students and administrators implement those solutions. The idea of a systematically reused coffee cup is one that we've had for a while, but were driven by this challenge to flesh out.

Tell us about your work experience

PLAN bridges the corporate and activist spheres, connecting ideas of students and campus staff with the products of B-Corps and other socially responsible businesses to implement closed loop systems.

Please describe your legal and organizational structure

The Post-Landfill Action Network is a registered 501c(3) non-profit organization.

Please describe, in detail, your business model and how you intend to test and iterate this model.

Please explain how your innovation will work within, potentially improve, and provide benefit to the plastics system.

This system decreases reliance on small format plastics and the plastics system. While stainless steel mugs are a durable alternative, wear and tear over time will lead to individual mugs being discarded from the reusable to-go system. Responsible disposal includes: - Send mugs back to the parent company for redistribution or recycling - Donate battered mugs to thrift outlets - Incorporate discarded mugs into metal recycling operations on campus or in the surrounding municipality

Please describe, in depth, how your solution will reduce the overall environmental footprint of packaging.

This program also reduces environmental impact of to-go infrastructure by averting overall volume of materials going to landfills and incinerators, facilities that are among the top three emitters of methane globally. Decreasing reliance on landfills and incinerators mitigates socio-environmental problems that these facilities perpetuate, including groundwater pollution from leachate, olfactory pollution, and disenfranchisement of surrounding communities that are often communities of color.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Lauren Ito

Hi Post-Landfill Action Network (PLAN) 
As Refinement Phase quickly comes to a close in LESS THAN 7 HOURS, I want to remind you that the following must be submitted by tonight, August 31st at 11:30 p.m. Pacific Time.

1. Submit the Refinement Questions Form online that was sent again via email yesterday evening--we have not yet received this from you. These questions are mandatory for Top Ideas consideration, so this should be your first priority in the final stretch.

2. A secondary priority, which is optional, is to update your Refinement Phase post. I see you've already updated your concept on the platform. But please share any additional information, photos, and documentation of your progress throughout this Phase!

If you have any questions, please email

Looking forward to reviewing and celebrating the amazing work you've achieved this Refinement Phase!

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