Vessel Works

The Vessel Works cup recycle program has been embraced by The Butcher & The Baker and other businesses in Telluride and Mountain Village. (Courtesy photo)

Here’s a staggering statistic: More than 300 billion paper cups are tossed into landfills every year. That’s globally. In the US alone, that number is 58 billion. The paper cups we use — just once — for hot beverages like tea of coffee are lined with plastic and therefore costly to recycle. Recycling just doesn’t happen for this impactful amount of waste.

Enter entrepreneur Dagny Tucker, whose various start-ups focus on sustainability. Vessel Works, based out of Boulder, is a reusable coffee cup start-up that has established a pilot program in Telluride. Participants are The Butcher & The Baker, High Alpine Coffee, Ghost Town and Telluride Coffee Company. Her team refers to Vessel Works as “a disruptive and bona fide solution” to halting the flow of disposable paper coffee cups into trash bins.

Here’s how it works: Visit a participating Vessel Works dispenser, sign out your cup for free, using your phone to scan the code on the mug. Every mug can be tracked down using internet technology. When you’ve consumed your beverage, toss it in a Vessel Works return kiosk or at the establishment from which you borrowed it. It’s a lot like the concept behind Denver’s ubiquitous scooters. The pick-up and cleaning is provided. It’s that simple. The participating establishments pay a per cup fee to Vessel Works that is comparable to the cost of a paper coffee cup.

Elena Levin owns Ghost Town Grocer the little grocery and coffee shop on Colorado Avenue tucked next to Zia Sun. Diners sip out of mismatched mugs or Mason jars and now, while on the pilot program, can take a Vessel Works stainless steel mug out the door.

“It think it’s a great idea,” Levin said. “If nothing else, it will get people to think about their own waste.”

The aim of Vessel Works — to reduce waste — contributes to a larger conversation, Levin said.

“It’s a good conversation starter for how our culture treats waste and disposables. And, I hope it feels like an accessible thing for tourists,” she said, noting that a resort town’s visitors don’t often bring their own coffee mugs when they travel.

Levin was hopeful the program would expand, saying that the more communities it’s in the more likely it was to succeed.

Vessel Works has partnered with Mountainfilm, a move Levin said would greatly aid the area’s numerous summer visitors become acquainted with the program. “Partnering with festivals is a great idea. That’s vital. We need to get them all onboard.”

Using a Vessel Works cup removes “the hassle of carrying and cleaning your own cup,” according to a news release. Fewer than two percent of coffee drinkers currently bring their own reusable mug to Starbucks and around 26 percent of consumers order cold brew coffee or frozen drinks typically served in a 100 percent plastic cup.

And, once an account is established consumers could not only procure a cup anywhere they’re available — much like city scooter programs — but also receive individualized reports on the positive impacts of using the cup, such as waste reduction, lessened carbon footprint and other upsides to using something reusable.

Zoe Dohnal is Mountain Village’s business development and community engagement coordinator where, so far, one town business has availed itself of the new service.

“Our goal is 100 percent of merchants,” she told the Colorado Sun. “But it’s also about educating people about why we’re moving beyond recycling. Being in a mountain town, I don’t want to stereotype, but we love the outdoors and take on the responsibility to protect that. But of course, change is hard for anyone.”

Vessel Works is part of a Telluride Venture Accelerator (TVA) two-week boot camp for start-ups that provide alternatives to plastics. Along with Vessel Works are: Ridgway’s Panji Bags which makes alternatives to hard shell plastics using carbon fiber and wood; Final Straw reusable, personal straws; Sana Packaging, which offers the cannabis industry hemp plastic and 100 percent reclaimed ocean plastic for marijuana product packaging; Plaine Products, which brings recyclable aluminum containers to the vegan personal care products industry; and LimeLoop, a packaging company that upcycles billboard vinyl for its returnable shipping products.

On Tuesday night, representatives from each company gave a brief presentation at the Nugget Theatre preceding a screening of the film, “Albatross,” to culminate the boot camp. The event was co-hosted by TVA and Sheep Mountain Alliance.