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  • Jenica Barrett

The Portland Coffee House Proving Zero Waste in Business is Absolutely Possible

Updated: Jan 5, 2020

Every year in Portland, Oregon we throw out 50 million disposable coffee cups. Coffee cups, given how they are designed, can neither be composted nor recycled here in Portland, meaning that those 50 million cups head straight to the landfill. And even for a used-to-be-coffee-hater like me (although recently converted), that's still a problem. Whether you're buying coffee, hot cocoa, or chai tea, it always comes in those nasty little cups.

On the individual level, we can all bring our own thermoses to shops to avoid participating in the waste system. But what are coffee shops themselves doing about it? I sat down with Camille Bevans, the cafe manager at Seven Corners, to find out how Nossa Familia is challenging whether disposables are essential to a coffee shop, and implementing zero waste practices at a much higher level.

Nossa Familia Coffee

This article is sponsored by Nossa Familia.

Learning about Nossa

I first heard about Nossa Familia when I was taking a class at PSU that was off campus at Community Vision in SE Portland. Right next door was this cute little corner coffee shop that my classmates would grab a bite to eat from during break. I remember hearing about it for the first time when a classmate raved about how Nossa Familia carried vegan cheesecake, while simultaneously eating her piece as fast as she could! I never managed to actually pop in the cafe though.

A few months later, I attended the Zero Waste Conference and discovered that Nossa Familia was giving a presentation about their zero waste practices at the event. After that, I knew I really had to check this place out! So I scheduled a meeting with Camille and sat down to a cup of their pumpkin chai to chat about what made Nossa Familia so unique.

Nossa Familia Sign

Sustainability at its core

Nossa Familia was first started in 2004 by Augusto Carneiro, who wanted to create a coffee shop that would bring his family's coffee beans from Brazil to Portland. Understanding the value of relationships, Augusto created a company that had a direct coffee trade model with his own family. Nossa Familia now proudly sells ethically sourced coffee from farmers located in various regions of the world, having expanded beyond Augusto's family farm. Some of Nossa's employees have even visited the farmers themselves. "How can I trust that this is truly ethical coffee if it's not certified organic?" I heard one customer ask Camille while she was busy preparing some drinks. To which she replied with a smile, "Because I have visited the farm myself!".

Nossa Familia is dedicated to sustainability and green sourcing in just about every way possible. As a Certified B Corporation, it uses 100% renewable wind energy, researches new eco-friendly packaging materials for their products, and decorates their shops with reclaimed furniture. They even make their sustainability report available to the public for anyone to read!


Charging extra for to-go

What makes Nossa especially unique though, is what they did when they opened their newest shop at Seven Corners. Spear headed by Camille and a supportive management, the team decided to conduct an experiment to see if they could reduce disposable coffee cup use, without actually taking away the cups themselves. They implemented a 25 cent up charge for drinks to go.

Nossa has always offered a 25 cent discount for customers who bring their own cups. But as the data they presented at the Zero Waste Conference showed, it wasn't getting the results they wanted. So now, instead of just offering a discount, they also charge customers an extra 25 cents if they ask for it in a coffee cup - to go. Camille was very clear though, "we are in the business of customer service", which means they always take the time to explain to each customer the up charge and why they are implementing it.

Since implementing the up charge, the Seven Corners location has seen a dramatic increase in drinks that are ordered "for here" or in the customer's own thermos. Granted, there is still a percentage of customers that use disposable coffee cups, but it is less than half of the total drinks purchased! Just think about that. If more coffee shops implemented a simple up charge and took the time to educate their customers on its purpose, we could see half of those 50 million coffee cups just disappear! (and by disappear, I don't mean the landfill!).

Not every customer has been happy about the change in price. But overall, the responses have been positive. "If customer's gave negative feedback", Camille explains about the up-charge program "we would be closed in a week". The results have been so successful at Seven Corners, she said, that they are thinking about rolling out the up charge at their other locations, potentially as early as New Years.

Nossa Familia Seven Corners

Consumer vs. Industry responsibility

Finishing up my interview with Camille, I asked her the trickiest question, the one everyone has been asking lately. Are consumers responsible for demanding change? Or will nothing truly change until businesses and industry get on board? That one got a smile and a sigh out of her. "We can only do what our customers support", Camille emphasized. Businesses need to make money to survive and if customers don't support a change, they can't make it profitable. So asking whether it is the customer or the business that needs to change first, is kind of like asking whether it was the chicken or the egg. It's both. Or one. But either way, change on either side will impact the other.

Camilla urged customers to leave feedback for businesses whenever possible. She explained that online reviews (those visible to the public) are the most meaningful. Nossa Familia now carries soy milk and is working to install bike racks out front based on customer feedback!

How is your local coffee shop making changes to support the environment? Leave them some feedback (and a few tips from Nossa Familia about how it's done!).

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