A Portland company named after one of the coolest mammalian mashups on the planet is working to reduce waste one cup at a time.
The Portland metro area goes through an estimated 1 million disposable cups every week. Most single-use coffee cups are lined with plastic and not recyclable, so they’re hauled 150 miles east of Portland and dumped in a landfill.
Enter OKAPI Reusables, a women-owned-and-led business that celebrated its first birthday in January. It partners with local cafes and provides reusable beverage containers that customers can use by downloading an app. Co-founder Debora Gray answered some of our burning questions about how it all works.
How did the company get its name?
The okapi is related to a giraffe. It’s one of the longest-living mammalian species on the planet, so they’re resilient — and it fits with what we’re doing, providing reusable cups as an alternative to single-use, helping shift toward a circular economy.
Walk us through the app.
It’s a one-time $10 membership fee to become an OKAPI member, then you can borrow and return as much as you like. Cups can be returned to any cafe in the network. We have 21 cafes in the network in metro Portland, four in Vancouver, WA, and 11 in the San Francisco Bay Area. We’re also testing our service in corporate cafes.
If a customer doesn’t return a cup within two weeks, we send a nudge by email. If the cup still isn’t returned after a month, we charge $15 for the lost cup. We’d rather have the cups circulate!
Do you plan to offer straws or any other reusable products in the future?
With our model, cafes wash the cups and lids in-house, typically using commercial dishwashers. Because reusable straws are washed manually, it’s better for people to bring their own. We’re seeing that happen more and more, along with people opting out of using straws altogether.
We may consider other reusable products, but for now we’re focused on cups.
How many cups do you estimate OKAPI is saving in the Portland metro area?
By the end of 2023, we expect to save 2,500-3,000 cups per month.
What happens when a community member nominates a cafe through your site?
We usually visit that cafe if we haven’t already. Our members give us great suggestions — they have a good sense of where OKAPI will work — it’s the neighborhood cafes with lots of regulars, and owners who care about waste and limiting their use of plastic. Aurora Coffeehouse PDX is a good example. We reached out to them because they were nominated by a couple of OKAPI members. Aurora joined the network in March.
How is OKAPI using grant funds from Oregon Metro?
Metro support has been critical to growing our network. The funds have been used for the purchase of cups, our travel to cafes, and community events for coffee drinkers and cafe owners in collaboration with Waste-Free Advocates (WFA). WFA organized a cafe owner roundtable in January at Futura Coffee Roasters; it was a rare opportunity for cafe owners and managers to share tips about talking to customers about bringing their own cups, using reusable cups (like OKAPI), and choosing ceramic cups for dine-in.
We offer signs and posters to build awareness of OKAPI, but we’ve seen that cafes that have shifted a lot of coffee to-go from disposable cups to [bring your own] or reusables are ones where baristas take time to talk with regular customers about reusables — when it’s practical to do that — to encourage a different choice.
Do you hope to partner with an international company like Starbucks in the future?
We’d love to work with any organization — independent or a chain — that really wants to cut waste going to landfill. Our passion is cutting out plastic pollution; disposable coffee cups have a plastic lining, plus there’s the plastic lid, and all those cold drink cups are made of plastic. (Cold drinks make up ~70% of Starbucks’ sales.) All those disposable cups are shipped here from overseas, we use them for 15 minutes, then they’re collected from waste bins and trucked to a landfill. In metro Portland, that landfill is 150 miles east, along the Gorge.
Along with the environmental aspects, it’s a better experience drinking from a real cup —coffee stays hot longer in an insulated cup, and you can get juices, smoothies, and boba to-go in beautiful glass cups.