Aboard Classic Harbor Line’s America 2.0 schooner, the guests on the day sail to the Statue of Liberty sit back and enjoy an afternoon on the water. As the boat moves along the Hudson, complimentary drinks are served. Instead of typical single-use cups, the charter and tour boat fleet recently switched over to Cup Zero, a reusable drinkware alternative. The cup says, “Hey I’m worth more than one drink” along with a reminder to “Return me when you’re done.”
New York City runs on convenience and the city produces more than 14 million tons of trash annually. Cups are an especially messy part of the equation. In the United States, over 58 billion single-use paper cups are thrown away each year. That’s the equivalent of 110,000 cups every minute.
The city is significantly less efficient than other major cities across America in waste reduction. Only about one-fifth of the city’s waste gets recycled. The NYC Department of Sanitation estimates around 25% of trash from businesses and 18% from homes makes it to a recycling facility.
Cup Zero is attempting to cut out waste before it piles up. Michael Cyr, one of the co-founders of Cup Zero, started out working in the waste industry pricing out piles of garbage. While he was grappling with how little of what we throw away is recyclable, he met Zsolt Bendel at a climbing gym. At the time, Bendel worked in nightlife production and the sea of plastic cups at the end of events was a constant on his mind. With their mutual interest in sustainability, the pair came up with an idea: a reusable cup service for venues and events.
Many event spaces, venues, and businesses in New York are utilizing Cup Zero in a shift toward more environmentally friendly operations. When an event or venue rents out cups from Cup Zero, they are provided collection bins for used cups. The bins are later collected by Cup Zero and transported to a washing facility in Queens. Cyr says people can be hesitant about reusable systems because of sanitation concerns but the commercial dishwashers they use are fully up to Department of Health standards.
Ideal Glass Studios is an artist-run film and TV production studio located in the West Village that has been utilizing Cup Zero’s service for events since 2019. The studio’s Events Coordinator Olga Savel said Cup Zero’s philosophy of sustainability was a perfect match for the studio’s existing focus on minimizing its environmental impact.
At Ideal Glass, clients are given the option to choose between glassware or reusable cups for their event. Savel said an added benefit of Cup Zero is it provides a great alternative for big events where glassware can’t be used because of safety issues.
When events have an open bar, guests are reminded by the bartender how the reusable cups work. With a cash bar, Ideal Glass implements a similar incentive system used by other venues. Guests pay $1 to get their cups when they purchase their first drink. They can swap their cups for new drinks throughout the event and get their money back at the end.
Along with the environmental benefits of the system itself, Savel says the reusable cups start a conversation between the guests, bartenders, and all those involved in the event. It puts the message of sustainability right in people’s hands.
During the event, people are given directions about how the system works through signs, reminders from the bartenders, and directions from the host. Savel says she hopes the more people use Cup Zero, the more they will get used to the idea of reusability. “You’ll have to think about throwing any cup away,” said Savel.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced a shift in how people thought about waste as to-go containers became a necessity for nearly every meal. “It was like cool we’re outside but also there was so much trash being produced everywhere,” said Cyr. With many restaurants and businesses in New York City implementing to-go cocktails and beers, several of Cup Zero’s contacts reached out about sustainable to-go services.
In response, Cup Zero launched a reusable to-go cup. Customers can download the Cup Zero app and scan the QR code at participating coffee shops to check out a to-go cup filled with their drink of choice. When users are done, they can drop off the cup at any Cup Zero location, displayed in map format on the app, and complete the return with a QR code scan.
Cup Zero is also expanding its reach out into Manhattan’s harbors in collaboration with Classic Harbor Line as the reusable cup service presents an effective solution for vessels that don’t have dishwashing available on board. The fleet is committed to environmentally conscious improvements like minimizing fuel use and making use of tides on boat routes so partnering with Cup Zero was an easy choice.
“Eliminating single-use plastics from our operation has been an ongoing initiative at Classic Harbor Line that we aim to build on year after year,” said Classic Harbor Line General Manager, Captain Sarah Pennington. “Cup Zero is an outstanding NYC-based service that cycles clean cups through us without producing more plastics on our planet.”
On Cup Zero’s app, users can find an impact calculator that shows how much waste, carbon emissions, and water an individual is saving. “What people don’t think about is there’s a lot of resources that go into producing a single-use anything,” said Cyr. “By switching to reusable, even after a couple of reuses, it’s way better for the environment.”
Cup Zero is looking to spread its impact as far as it can and continue to partner with events, venues, and coffee shops in New York City and beyond. Tackling cup waste is just one aspect of the larger issue of waste systems that desperately need innovation. “We’re drowning in trash,” said Cyr.
Businesses and event services that can cut out waste from the top-down make a significant environmental impact. Cyr says collecting bins of reusable cups after an event always reminds him of Cup Zero’s purpose. “I will never forget the smell of Margarita, but it makes me realize the impact we’re having,” said Cyr. “You look at this giant stash of reusable cups that would have otherwise ended up in a landfill.”