Mugshare branches across campus with new sustainability ideas in the works

A student-founded sustainability initiative to reduce paper cup waste is still taking the campus — and your local coffee shop — by storm, two years after its official launch.

Mugshare (stylized as “mugshare”) is an initiative started by a team of students at UBC sustainability organization Common Energy that offers reusable cups with a $5 deposit onsite at partner cafes, which can be returned to any of the cafes in the network for a deposit reimbursement. After a five-year pilot, mugshare officially launched in 2021. Its official launch was well-timed: in early 2022, Vancouver introduced a 25-cent fee for disposable cups, the first fee of its kind in Canada.

Since then, mugshare has expanded to an estimated 2,500 mugs in circulation. Nine of its 33 partner cafes are located on UBC’s Vancouver campus. Eateries from Blue Chip to Boulevard offer mugshare’s reusable cups onsite as an alternative to disposables.

The service aims to address a significant source of waste — according to a 2017 City Council report, an estimated 2.6 million paper coffee cups are thrown out in Vancouver every week.

According to co-founder and UBC alum Mel Chanona, mugshare was built after frustration with traditional sustainability campaigns.

“Common Energy had a campaign called Love Your Mug, which was just trying to encourage people to bring their own tumbler ... to try to build awareness,” they said.

Chanona noted that similar campaigns have existed for a while, but have not helped move the needle towards change.

“We thought, how can we change the infrastructure instead of trying to change the consumer?”

Chanona graduated in 2020 with a PhD from UBC in oceanography and has continued to work with mugshare post-graduation in addition to their full-time work.

“It’s driven my understanding of the climate crisis and the waste crisis, which are very intertwined,” they said. “A PhD and academic background is really about training our minds to solve complex problems, and to use creativity and ingenuity to try to come up with new systems.”

mugshare has gone through a number of operational difficulties since its founding. The group experimented with pilot programs for several years. Notably, one 2020 model of bamboo mugs was recalled after students reported burn hazards.

The newest mugshare design uses polypropylene (#5 PP), a low-density and heat-tolerant material often found in food and beverage packaging.

“We’ve done drop tests, road tests, extensive stress testing to see how long these ones really last,” said Chanona. “We had issues with some of our earlier pilot mugs, which would crack or were more fragile and brittle. And these ones were the most durable ones that we could find.”

As mugshare expands, Chanona hopes that the organization will expand its reach to more cafes, and encourage reusable alternatives to single-use cups.

“Right now, our dream is for mugshare to enable cafes to go entirely single-use free.”