The Schwabe “Cups-To-Go”

By Carmen Calzacorta, Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt

Many of us have planned to take our own durable water bottles or travel mug to avoid having to toss a disposable cup. But darn it – just like the well-intended cloth grocery bag – we stand in line empty handed.  This is the scene that sparked the idea. But, it really started with our internal sustainability audit and a culture and environment in which people were willing to try some outside the box ideas that translated into a business case that worked for everyone.

In 2005, Schwabe Williamson & Wyatt (“Schwabe”) hired an outside company to perform an internal audit and to help develop our sustainability plan. One of the audit items was inventorying our trash. We found a lot of paper cups.  First we discontinued the use of paper and other disposable cups in our office–going to durable and washable cups instead. We distributed Schwabe branded traveling mugs to Schwabe folks and clients. It required an investment in the cups, new dishwashers, and some new duties for staff, but we got the desired result: the number of paper cups in the trash decreased.

Then, in early 2008, one of the lawyers on our sustainability committee found himself in line at Starbucks, without his travel mug, and realized that there has to be a better system. He was tired of coming into the building and going to his office only to turn around and go back to Starbucks for coffee. Back at his office he thought, “Can’t Starbucks hold mugs for us?” That’s where the idea started.

The sustainability committee knew that we would have to make the business case – not only to our firm, but to Starbucks. We started penciling it out: How much would the mugs cost (they had to be cost-effective and made from recycled materials yet unattractive enough that people wouldn’t want to collect them? Who would be responsible for cleaning and getting the mugs to Starbucks and what did that cost us? Did we have the dishwashers to do it? Would Starbucks even entertain the idea? And could we convince them that it was a win-win?

Seeking a benchmark, we asked the Pacwest Center building management to help us go through our trash for one night and count up the Starbucks cups on our floors. With their help, we determined that we were responsible for about 140 cups per business day or about 36,400 cups in a year. WOW!

With this information, our director of operations went to see the manager at Starbucks. Their manager was enthusiastic but had to review it and clear it with their district manager and make sure that Starbucks complied with health laws. They came back and identified storage as a concern. We kept talking and discussed limiting the number of cups held at Starbucks and Starbucks starting looking at alternative ways of storing the mugs, and soon there was a solution.

Our initial launch was June 2008. We rolled it out and informed everyone about the 10 cent discount for using our reusable mugs and the honor system for returning them. We soon discovered that the mugs we had ordered didn’t survive the dishwashers well. The second batch of mugs had a new problem: the lids held soapy water. The third batch resolved the issue. Then we had trouble keeping up with demand – we quickly exceeded our initial orders.  There were some other start-up hiccups.

LESSON LEARNED:  It is tougher to get people to keep trying a new program if their first experience is bad, so plan ahead.

We also had a communication plan.  For the first few months, we would remind everyone about the program and why we were doing it.

And we had to deal with the skeptics’ questions: How much effluent is released into the sewer system? Is the washing biodegradable? How much energy is consumed by washing the mugs? What is the cost of dedicating someone to manage the process? We were able to work through these issues by communicating the benefits of the program and addressing to the extent we could the impact of the changes, but we still have skeptics. 

LESSON LEARNED: You will get some resistance.

We now have about 250 Schwabe cups-to-go in circulation every business day in Portland. It has become an everyday habit for many of us to ask for a “Schwabe mug” at the Pacwest Center Starbucks. At the end of each day the Schwabe mugs are collected and washed at Schwabe and returned to Starbucks. We still have lawyers that walk into meetings with paper cups and many of us make a remark about them. We no longer fill the trash with paper cups, but those few that remain still can’t be composted. The challenge and education continue.

The initiative gave us something that we are proud of and something to build on. Not an easy feat for lawyers, who by their nature are cynical and pessimistic. It has inspired us to look for other projects, and we continue to surprise ourselves.