Reuse Series

How Today’s Single-Use Habits Can Inform the Direction of Reuse Systems of the Future 

By Carolina Lobel and Dan Liswood, Senior Directors at the Center for the Circular Economy

April 24, 2023

To build successful reuse systems, we need to make reuse a natural choice for customers.

With around 250 billion single-use cups used globally each year, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and lost resources, there is a significant opportunity to reduce our waste by learning from the journey of everyday materials, like cups, that are part of many people’s daily routine. Understanding customer motivation, preference, and behavior is a critical step in advancing a circular economy, where materials are kept in circulation and designed with their next life and use in mind 

Over the past two years, our NextGen Consortium has surveyed thousands of customers on how they buy and consume beverages on the go, and what they do with their cups after they are done. We examined survey results* across three types of cups for: 1) hot coffee, 2) iced coffee, and 3) fountain soda. These findings inform not only how to improve recycling and composting outcomes for cups today, but also how to optimize for reusable cup systems in the future.  

What we learned:

1) Lives are busy, and people sip on the go.

  • Most customers purchase drinks in single-use cups during busy, on-the-go moments, and drink them in their car 
  • Most people finish drinking within 30 mins to one hour, but hold on to their cup for an hour or more––except for hot coffee drinkers, who generally dispose of their cups in less than one hour


2) Nearly half of all cups finish their journey at home.

  • The most common cup journey starts in a drive-thru, is consumed in a vehicle, and then is placed in the trash at home 
  • Few customers dispose of their cup at a coffee shop/restaurant, including in the parking lot
  • Most cups end up in waste streams at home, work or school


3) Reusing a cup is more common than it may appear.

  • This is especially true for convenience/gas station purchases and among customers with lower income 
  • Customers are significantly more likely to bring their reusable coffee cups to convenience/gas station vs. other restaurant/coffee shop settings


4) Once customers embrace reuse, they tend to stick to it.

  • Of customers who typically reuse their cup, half say they “almost always” bring a refillable cup with them


5) There is a desire to cut down on waste if it is convenient.

  • Customers express an interest in different disposal methods, but don’t want to go out of their way to do so 
  • While the majority of customers prefer to reuse or recycle their cups, the say-do gap is real, and the process to recycle or reuse needs to be seamless for people
  • Given the choice, customers say they would rather recycle their cup than throw ​it in the trash  


Gaining a better understanding of how customers use and dispose of single-use cups today helps to inform the optimal design of reusable cups and cup sharing systems. As we test these new systems and think through what it will take for reusable cups to become part of our cultural norms and daily habits, these survey findings can help us meet customers where they are instead of expecting new behaviors. These findings also prompt important questions, such as:  

  • How can we make it easy for customers to borrow reusable cups in drive thrus and return the cups on the go and/or from their homes or place of work? 
  • How do we continue to strengthen multi-brand partnerships to build dense networks of restaurants and coffee shops participating in collaborative returnable cup programs? 
  • If customers are still not clear on where to dispose their single-use cups, how do we educate them when a fourth bin of reusable cups is added to the equation? And how do we design reusable cups for recoverability when they do end up in a recycling bin?  
  • For beverages consumed in the car, how might we encourage the use of more durable and insulated reusable options that replicate the performance benefits of styrofoam, a much less sustainable option? 
  • Since the overwhelming number of cups are disposed of at home, the office or at school, can we explore residential or commercial reusable cup collection services that make participation as easy as disposing a cup in the trash or recycle bin? 


Bottom line: To build successful reuse systems, we need to make reuse a natural choice for customers. If we make it easy for customers, as part of their busy daily routine, we can make reuse the top option for millions of people. 

Our customer research findings are critical inputs to the NextGen Consortium’s broader strategy to accelerate the transition to reuse. We’ve been researching and testing reusable cups since 2018 and will continue to iterate and advance in 2023 and beyond with in-market tests and other studies, such as financial modeling and environmental impact analyses on reuse. If you would like to be a part of our upcoming studies and pilots, get in touch with us at [email protected]. 


* To explore customer behavior related to single-use cups, the NextGen Consortium conducted three, quantitative surveys with 2,500 U.S. respondents​ each focused on 1) hot coffee cups, 2) iced coffee cups, and 3) fountain soda cups over a period ranging from two to three weeks in 2021 and 2022. We examined how customers buy and consume beverages in single-use cups as well as what happens to the cup after purchase. In these studies, “customer” refers to respondents who purchase hot coffee, iced coffee, or fountain soda out of the home regularly, at least once per week.  

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