As more Bay Area coffee shops look at ways to cut down on waste, members of the disabled community are concerned they’ll be left out.
Concerned about climate change, some cafes are testing out rental programs for reusable glass jars, while others tell customers they can only sip their drinks for-here. Yet both options present issues for disabled folks with limited mobility or decreased sensation in their hands. For them, paper cups are still the best option because glass and ceramic mugs are often too heavy or slippery.
“It adds another layer of difficulty to me as a disabled person to just enjoy a drink like anybody else,” said Alice Wong, a disabled activist and founder of the Disability Visibility Project who loves frequenting San Francisco’s cafes. “That’s the sad part. Most people don’t realize how challenging it is to be out and about when you have a disability.”
Wong’s concerns echo conversations that arose when Bay Area cities voted to ban plastic straws in 2018. Disability advocates said that the ban ignored the many disabled people who need plastic straws to drink, and that alternatives like paper straws aren’t good enough. It spoke to an inherent tension between environmentalism and inclusivity, where lawmakers and business owners establish policies for sustainability that don’t always consider their impact on the entire population.
In January, Berkeley cafes will start charging 25 cents to customers who require a single-use cup due to a city-wide ordinance. Wong called the new rule a form of discrimination.
“That’s like if I’m being charged extra if I’m using a ramp to go into a restaurant,” she said. “It adds to the tax of being disabled.”
The issue leaves lawmakers and business owners unsure about what to do when it comes to single-use cups while trying to be mindful about the needs of those in the disability community.
In September, Kedar Korde stopped offering disposable cups at his Oakland cafe, Perch Coffee House. Instead, he rents out glass jars for a 50-cent deposit and gives customers discounts when they bring in their own vessel. After The Chronicle wrote about the transition earlier this month, Korde received many emails from disabled folks, telling him they can’t physically pick up those jars — and calling him ableist.
It was a surprise for Korde, in part because he actually does stock some paper cups for disabled customers, as well as young children and the elderly. He just doesn’t make it widely known because he doesn’t want able-bodied customers to start demanding disposable cups. How do you have that conversation without risking an invasion of privacy?
That’s an issue the city of Berkeley is facing as well with its waste ordinance. Sophie Hahn, the Berkeley city councilwoman who authored the legislation, has been working with disability advocates to figure out a good way for disabled people to avoid the city’s 25-cent charge — just as low-income people can flash a WIC or EBT benefits card for nutrition assistance benefits and see the charge waived.
“You don’t want a customer to have to say, ‘Hi, I’m disabled, give me a free cup,’” Hahn said. “By the same token, you don’t want a worker to have to say, ‘Well, what kind of disability do you have and how do you prove it?’”
Hahn hasn’t found a solution yet, and if the city doesn’t come up with a work-around by January, she said she hopes disabled folks will bring their own cups to avoid the fee — even if it’s their own paper cup.
Jessica Furui, owner of the Family cafe in North Beach, hopes for something similar. Family doesn’t stock any to-go cups at all in an effort to create a slower experience inspired by traditional cafes in Japan. That said, she said she “will make adjustments as needed,” though she doesn’t know what those adjustments might look like.
Toting around a cup isn’t possible for some disabled people who can’t fully use their arms, said Tara Ayres, a disabled resident in Richmond.
“Carrying your own mug and relying on strangers to dig through your bag to get it is problematic — even if you could find someone to help you,” she said.
Is it even possible for a cafe to go zero-waste and be inclusive? Wong said no, that single-use options must be available. Dominique Crenn, the celebrity chef opening Boutique Crenn as a zero-waste cafe and restaurant, hopes to find some new solutions. She’s currently looking for lightweight cups that are also reusable with the disabled community in mind.
“We, like many others in our industry, are so used to common practices, and the learning process when it comes to sustainable practices is really exciting — and challenging,” Crenn said via email.
Nick Cho, owner of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters, said Bay Area cafes should work together if they truly want to cut down on waste. He envisions creating a community-oriented cup rental program in Berkeley — a grassroots counter to the pilot program currently happening in Berkeley with a Colorado startup — but he’s running into a fundamental problem: capitalism. After telling cup manufacturers about his nonprofit idea, he’s had a hard time getting calls back, he said.
Wong would like to see more cafe owners similarly look to suppliers and manufacturers for more innovative solutions.
“Being accessible is part of being a socially responsible cafe owner,” she said. “You want to be able to serve all kinds of people, just like if you offer four types of milk.”