Kill the Cup: coffee, selfies, and environmental impact

Published on: 
10 Dec 2014
Drew Beal

Did you know that 50 billion paper cups get discarded in America each year? It’s unbelievable! I started researching the ‘cup problem’ when I was a grad student at UC San Diego; here's what I've found:

In 2008, Starbucks established a goal to serve 25% of all drinks in reusable cups. Customers received discounts for bringing personal tumblers, and environmental messaging helped raise awareness about waste reduction. Three years later, however, the reusable rate had yet to crack 2%. In a world where climate change is our biggest challenge, less than 1 in 50 people bring a reusable coffee cup to Starbucks. What gives?

Well, the answer has something to do with behavioral science. During a 2004 experiment, door hangers were placed on houses in an attempt to inspire energy conservation. Each door hanger said something different. Money, environment, good citizenship—none of those made a difference.

A fourth sign, however, made a significant impact in changing behavior. What did it say? “The majority of your neighbors are undertaking efforts on a daily basis to reduce their energy consumption.” How's that for keeping up with the Joneses?

At Kill the Cup, we’re applying the same methodology to reusable cups. If we’re serious about changing behavior, we have to make it fun and inclusive.

So that’s what we did when we started Kill the Cup: we encouraged people to bring a reusable cup when they got coffee, and had them upload photos to our website. Each photo served as entry into weekly and grand prize raffles, and we published photos and leaderboards to establish social norms around reusable behavior.

This October, student teams from eight universities competed in the inaugural Kill the Cup University Challenge. Student ambassadors received training and resources on social entrepreneurship, and implemented their own four-week grassroots campaign. During the 20-day challenge we received over 2,200 reusable cup selfies from 1,260 cup-killers! In addition to the environmental benefits, we awarded $5,000 in social impact grants to fund sustainability projects at each of the winning schools.

We’re excited to scale the size and impact of the program, and early registration is now open for the 2015 University Challenge. Do you have what it takes to be the nation’s next great cup-killer? Sign up now to be among the first to receive information on next year’s challenge. It’s going to be a lot of fun!