Going green when you're a coffee shop is more difficult than it sounds. Just think about all the environmentally unfriendly items you encounter as a customer — iced coffee cups, hot coffee lids, single-use plastic straws, wax paper bags that your favorite pastries are placed in — and then, consider that there are even more not-so-green practices going on behind the counter. Despite the hurdles, Kerry Diamond, the owner of Smith Canteen in Brooklyn, is on a mission to transform her coffee shop into one of the greenest in the world.
"This epidemic of plastic waste and litter is everywhere, and if we care at all about the planet, we all have to do something about it," Diamond tells Refinery29. "The Green Canteen Project" — what her team has dubbed the café's effort to go single-use plastic free by January 1, 2019 — was born out of the "gnawing" guilt she personally felt over our society’s dependence on single-use plastic. "We’re so used to taking disposable things and getting rid of them, and we just can’t think like that anymore," says Diamond.
New initiatives aside, Smith Canteen has been utilizing green practices for some time. The shop switched to paper straws in April— it has positionable plastic straws behind the counter for those who have mobility issues and a sign indicating their availability. Diamond has also long offered a 10% discount to anyone who brings their own reusable cup. Despite the well-advertised B.Y.O.C. discount — a step that’s key to promoting a behavioral change among consumers — Diamond says the practice hasn’t made a noteworthy impact. "The highest we ever got was like 13 people [bringing their own cups] in one day. We see a few hundred people a day, so I just felt like 'ugh, we’re really not moving the needle,' and I wanted to do something more."
Eliminating single-use plastic straws has recently become something of a trend. In the past several months — in part thanks to viral YouTube videos, social media conversations, a variety of different anti-plastic straw organizations, and a shift in public opinion — several large corporations like Starbucks, McDonald's, Disney, Ikea, and Royal Caribbean caught on that it might be in their best interest to change their views on single-use plastic straws. Plastic straw bans were quickly instituted by fast-food chains, amusement parks, and even entire cities.
It's important to note, however, that straws aren't the main contributor to the world's plastic problem. In June, Bloomberg News reported that plastic straws make up around 0.03% of the ocean’s plastic and last week, USA Today cited a national study on the littering habits of Americans that showed straws were not even one of the top five most common forms of litter.
In order to find out what else could be changed besides single-used plastic straws, Diamond began researching the green practices other coffee shops were utilizing and didn’t find much. That’s when it became clear that Smith Canteen would have to be a guinea pig and try to become 100% single-use plastic free. "I thought if we just went for it and made an announcement, I would attract other like-minded people and coffee shop owners, and we could all try to figure this out together," she says.
Smith Canteen has since posted an Instagram photo of the team at Single O, a coffee shop in Australia it calls "a leader in the space" for having worked hard to reduce the number of disposables its customers use. In May of 2017, the coffee shop set a goal to cut its single-use cup waste in half by May 2018. To do this, it created a "short stay" bar, started a ceramic cup loaning program for customers who forgot to bring their own, and introduced its own KeepCup. For every single-use cup saved, Single O donates to Take 3 for the Sea, a non-profit committed to reducing plastic pollution by encouraging people to take three pieces of litter with them every time they leave the beach. By the one-year mark, the coffee shop reduced disposable takeaway cup usage by 47%.
Ultimately, Diamond believes that the best solution to cutting waste will be getting more customers to bring their reusable cups. "I think people engage in some magical thinking when it comes to the compostable items. They sort of think, 'Oh, it's corn. It’s sugar. It will just melt,' but that doesn’t happen. It has to be properly composted, and a lot of cities aren’t even set up to handle that, so I’m not looking toward that as the solution."
Though going 100% single-use plastic free is the Green Canteen Project's ultimate goal, over the next few months, Smith Canteen will also conduct a thorough audit of its front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house practices, a process customers and fellow business owners can follow on Instagram. The team has discussed ensure that they take advantage of each ingredient's full potential. "We squeeze our own orange juice and grapefruit juice on premises, but we just throw out the peels. Do we need to start looking at doing different things with that? Do we make our own jams and marmalades and start using the rinds to flavor things?" Diamond asks.
Since announcing the Green Canteen Project, Diamond says the reactions from her customers have been overwhelmingly positive. While there is still a lot to figure out, the shop owner remains hopeful that getting to zero single-use plastic waste is possible. Still, Diamond admits the prospect is daunting. "I really do think there are enough people out there that care about this today to keep us in business," she says, laughing. "But it is scary. We’re taking something away that people love. Look at celebrities, civilians; everybody loves walking around with their plastic cup of an iced beverage."
As Diamond and her Smith Canteen team set out on their mission to become one of the greenest coffee shops around, she's looking at it as a process, one that will involve experimentation and collaboration. And, Diamond hopes her customers understand that she knows it's going to take time to adjust to the practice. "If you ran out of the house and you forgot your Keep Cup, don’t beat yourself up… It’s not about being perfect, it’s about being better. Just take a paper cup without a lid, no straw, and that’s totally cool."