The fourth “R”

Boulder County expands the reduce, reuse, recycle paradigm

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Courtesy Vessel Works
Courtesy Vessel Works

Order a to-go latte from Seeds Cafe in Boulder’s Main Library and, if you don’t have your own reusable mug, there’s a chance you’ll be asked, “Would you like to take that in a Vessel cup?” 

Vessel cups, shiny stainless steel and in three different sizes, are neatly stacked to the left of the cash register. “They’re a free, really easy way to avoid using the disposables,” the barista might say, pointing to the towering stack of dull white paper cups behind her. 

Like a library for to-go mugs, Vessel lets you check out these metal reusable cups between multiple cafe locations in Boulder (Boxcar, Trident, Pekoe, Beleza, Amante, Innisfree). Simply pick one from the stack, scan the QR code stamped on the bottom, then let the barista fill it up with your drink of choice. You can take the Vessel with you anywhere — home, the gym, that grassy patch by the creek — and you have five days to return it to one of Vessel’s street-side kiosks, like the one outside the library, or at any of the other participating cafes. If your mug is overdue, you’ll get a polite reminder to bring it back. The program takes 10 seconds to register for and then you’re good to go for a life without single-use cups in Boulder County. 

“We’re building a public infrastructure to make reusability a reality for communities,” says Dagny Tucker, founder of Boulder-based Vessel Works. Even if it’s recyclable, “using something for a matter of minutes and then throwing it away is not going to get us lives that are sustainable.”

Vessel first arrived in Boulder in 2018, a few months after China completely upturned the recyclable materials market with its new “National Sword” policy, banning the import of 99 percent of the recyclable goods it once welcomed into its processing facilities. 

This has created a backlog of recyclable materials within Boulder County and the rest of the U.S., explains Kate Bailey, Eco-Cycle’s research director. Big-picture and long-term sustainability necessitates minimizing plastic’s role in everyday life, particularly considering most plastics in the world don’t get recycled, even if users place them in recycling bins, according to a research article published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Between 2015 and 2017, approximately 6,300 metric tons of plastic waste was generated in the world, only 9 percent of which was recycled, 12 percent was incinerated, and 79 percent accumulated in landfills or the natural environment.

Thus, reducing recyclable waste in and of itself has been a recent county-wide focus. “Now all of a sudden there’s a conversation about reducing plastics,” Bailey says. “Maybe recycling is not always the answer.”

While Boulder County is focused on educating households about “reduce” and “reuse” best-practices, independent businesses and initiatives, like Vessel Works, have also been shifting the focus away from “recycle” and toward a new, fourth “R” in the classic “reduce, reuse, recycle” paradigm: Refuse. 

“Recycling is not the solution to getting rid of waste,” says Heidi Quince, owner of the Longmont grocer Simply Bulk. “We can’t recycle our way out of this problem of using too many materials to begin with.”

At Simply Bulk, you can buy everything package-free. Grains, sugars, syrups, laundry detergents, vinegars, pet foods, produce, spices and much more are all displayed in drums or bins from which customers can pull the exact amount of goods they need. 

“We can blame the cheap costs of plastics as to why [plastic waste] has become so prevalent,” Quince says. “But it’s our responsibility at this point to find alternative ways to not even buy or demand those packages that are going to produce those wastes.”

Like Quince, reducing plastic waste — recyclable or not — has become a personal mission for Kristin Hostetter, editor-in-chief of SNEWS, an outdoor industry news outlet based in Boulder. In early 2019, she created the Plastic Impact Alliance (PIA), inviting worldwide brands, organizations and individuals within the outdoor industry to reject single-use plastic water bottles at their tri-annual Outdoor Retailer trade show, where tens of thousands of individuals come to Denver to discuss the industry’s future and best-practices. Within a few weeks of publicizing the PIA, more than 200 companies signed the pledge. 

Some brands, however, hesitated before signing on — particularly the ones offering taste-testers of food products. How could they offer testers without disposable dishes? Hostetter took the conundrum to the PIA task-force she’d created, and someone suggested contacting Vessel Works. Vessel provided metal testing cups, then washed and reused them — diverting 6,000 single-use cups at the Outdoor Retailer summer trade show in June, according to SNEWS

Tucker, of Vessel Works, hopes reusable cups can serve as physical symbols of the power individuals hold in refusing unnecessary waste and reusing what they already have, which is paramount to achieving true sustainability. “Until we really start thinking in terms of a circular system rather than a linear system, we are screwed.”