coffee in an orange mug

Brewing Better Habits

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We are a culture utterly obsessed with coffee. We drink it to wake up, we drink it at work, we drink it on first dates. We drink it so much that we can collectively joke about how coffee is, at any given moment, the singular thing holding us back from doing something we may later regret. For the 62% of Americans who drink it every day,1 coffee is more than just a beverage: it’s a cherished morning ritual, and even a marker of identity.

But all those oat milk lattes add up, with our planet paying the price. 58 billion coffee cups2 are thrown out every year in the United States alone, and contrary to what you may believe, the vast majority of them (99.75%) do not get recycled.2 Instead, they’re destined for landfills, where they can take up to a thousand years to fully decompose3 — contaminating the surrounding soil and water in the process. 

We need to kick our coffee cup addiction. But as anyone who’s ever tried to cut back on their caffeine consumption will know, changing our habits isn’t easy. The Decision Lab partnered with one of the world’s largest international coffee houses to explore why customers are so attached and paper cups, and what it would take for them to make the switch. 

Blending personal and scalable

Sustainable behavior change, just like your morning coffee order, is highly personalized. Everybody has different reasons for choosing paper cups over reusables (and vice versa). Maybe you’re always on the go, and it feels like an extra burden to keep a travel mug with you. Maybe the image of the busy, slightly harried professional clutching a paper coffee cup is one that resonates with you. Or maybe nobody else at your local café has a reusable mug, and you’d feel weird being the only one. In short, everyone is in need of a different fix.

two women by the window in a store

But we’re not going to solve this problem by sitting down for a one-on-one with every single coffee drinker in the world. Our goal was behavior change at scale: low-cost, high-potential nudges that could be implemented in our partner’s cafés and drive-thru locations globally, plus on their mobile ordering interface. 

After aligning with the client on where we wanted the project to go, we settled on developing two main tools: an Intervention Playbook full of custom behavioral change tools built specially for the client’s brand, as well as a Behavior Change Blueprint that could be socialized widely across the organization. This would give the company a concrete set of interventions they could start implementing right away, plus a guide that would help them ideate on & design even more techniques in the future.

A roadmap for a greener cup of coffee

TDL’s first step was a deep dive into the behavioral literature on sustainable consumer behavior. We reviewed more than 100 papers on green purchasing, habit formation, and nudges for sustainability. We also put ourselves in the customer’s shoes: who are the clientele at the client’s cafés? What did their morning coffee actually mean to them? It might sound a bit dramatic for a cup of joe, but empathizing with the customer was key to understanding what might persuade them to change up their routine with a reusable mug.

cocoa beans

Through 3 ideation workshops, we worked with client to translate all this data in an “Idea Book,” containing more than 115 behavioral levers we could pull on to nudge customers away from disposable cups. Through a structured feedback process, ranking interventions by features like their projected cost, estimated impact, and alignment with the client’s wider brand, we narrowed this down to the 39 highest-potential interventions that made up our final Playbook.

The Behavior Change Blueprint mapped out the important drivers of (and barriers to) the adoption of reusables, providing a foundation of BehSci knowledge in the client’s own context. This was transformed into an interactive online framework that anyone from the organization was welcome to click through and explore. In its pages were thorough and accessible descriptions of each intervention, laid out so that anybody could get a sense of what it involved, why it was effective, how tricky it would be to implement, and more. 

Disposable products have become such a fact of life that many of us hardly even think about using them (or throwing them away). But with the effects of climate change becoming more noticeable, that’s starting to change. Over the past 5 years, 85% of consumers4 say they’ve taken steps to reduce their environmental footprint, and more than a third now say they’d be willing to pay extra for more sustainable products. This openness to embracing greener options means that brands and companies may have more success with nudges for eco-friendly behavior than they would have a decade ago.

woman holding a straw in a glass filled with coffee

The client TDL partnered with for this project has been piloting their new sustainability initiative around the world, including some of the interventions included in the Playbook. The results so far having been amazing, with hundreds of thousands of cups diverted from landfills — hopefully just the beginning of the reusable revolution.


  1. NCA releases Atlas of American Coffee. (2020). National Coffee Association USA. 
  2. Weber, K. (2016, October 27). Your Coffee Habit May be Harming the Environment – Here’s What You Can Do Now. One Green Planet. 
  3. UNEP. (2018). Single-use plastics: A roadmap for sustainability.
  4. Recent Study Reveals More Than a Third of Global Consumers Are Willing to Pay More for Sustainability as Demand Grows for Environmentally-Friendly Alternatives. (2021, October 14). Business Wire.

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