Challenges

Getting rid of disposable coffee cups

I love coffee. Until a couple of years ago, I always thought that the paper cups served at cafes were recyclable, so I happily disposed of them in the same bin as my paper and cardboard rubbish. But that all changed when I found out that the cups actually contain plastic, and can stop the waste they get mixed up with getting recycled.

Coffee shops and their supply chains have actually done a lot to reduce the environmental impact of their consumers’ waste. The UK Industry body Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group says that 1 in 25 paper cups sold are now recycled - compared with 1 in 400 just a two years ago. That’s down to improved ‘binfrastructure’ - putting bins just for coffee cups where consumers can use them. That allows them to be handled separately and then sent to specialists who can prepare the materials for effective recycling.

But of course, recycling is not the top of the ‘waste hierarchy’ and we are much better off if we can reduce the amount of waste produced in the first place. So the question for industry and consumers is - how can we cut down on single use coffee cups? The obvious answer is reusable cups.

Two used disposable coffee cups in a railway cafe

Pret a Manger have done a lot to encourage consumers to give up disposable cups. But it's still producing so many. They are difficult to recycle and a waste of resources. What can we do to encourage reusable cups? #BeyondPlastics pic.twitter.com/215q3CaBib

— Calum (@Keep__Calum) 20 January 2019

I’ve got two reusable cups - one at the office and one at home. They’re great because they allow me to get my caffeine fix without producing any waste for the user to worry about. Plus, coffee shops realise they save a bit of money when they don’t have to give away cups, so offer discounts or extra loyalty card stamps when you use them.

Sometimes I wonder why I don’t see many other customers using their own reusable cups. But then there are lots of times when I don’t have mine with me, and I can see it from their perspective. It’s just not possible to bring your cup with you all the time. If I’m running late for a train (which happens a lot, unfortunately), I can’t waste time trying to find it. But when I get to the station and find out the train is running late too (that also happens a lot), getting a coffee to take on board with me suddenly seems like a great idea.

A disposable coffee cup littered at a train station fence

Here's what happens when disposable coffee cups are the normal option. They get littered. It's unhygienic and expensive to deal with, and there's barely any chance it will get to a recycling facility that can deal with the plastic in it.#BeyondPlastics pic.twitter.com/E4Dx6U1JjP

— Calum (@Keep__Calum) 20 January 2019

So, what can we do now? The UK government recently published its resources and waste strategy, and the EU has launched its circular economy package. There are plans to develop a deposit return system for coffee cups, and to force producers to pay the costs for disposal and recycling schemes. Systems like this have been implemented for other packaging waste streams but haven’t always worked as planned because of uncontrolled fraud in the waste industry.

I believe cafes themselves would be best placed to deliver a solution, but it has to be more than just better recycling. How about going further to integrate circular economy principles, such as a ‘cup-sharing’ scheme, where customers can buy their coffee in a reusable cup for an extra fee, which is then later refunded when they return the cup? If all major chains get involved, and behaviour change initiatives boost customer interest, they could see massive cuts to waste and make major savings. So, let’s keep moving the conversation forward and demand more - because we know it can be done.

Comments (5)

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How can this be improved?
Idoia Letona Castrillo
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  • Good post about disposable cups, Calum! It's obvious that these cups are the worst for the environment, can't be recycled and you can find them all around... The returning back system is a good idea, it is totally feasible.
    The ideal scenario will be having all the coffee shops working together for the same goal, so all of them share the same type of returnable cup. This will facilitate the return back scheme, as there will be more chances to find a drop-off point. This could be syncronized with an app, that tracks the user every time he/she uses the service (he/she needs to be signed up), it gives you a drop-off points location map and it tracks your environmental impact (disposable cups avoided = waste avoided = resources saved).

    Idoia Letona Castrillo
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  • However, I know that all the coffee shop brands using the same reusable cup would be challenging due to marketing issues...

    Calum Irvine
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  • Thanks, Idoia! Yes, I agree that getting the whole industry behind the scheme would be important. Luckily, we know we can do this when pushed, because of the progress they have made so far on increasing cup recycling rates. And having a drop-off points map would be useful and boost changes to user habits.

    Also, tracking cup movements with an app sounds like a great idea. Many users already collect loyalty stamps on apps, so it looks feasible with existing systems. Maybe it would be better for the tracking to be done in cafes, perhaps using QR codes printed on the cups, or a similar technology.

    How can this be improved?
    Kate Rushton
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  • This is really interesting and in-depth. I recently read that there was a festival in the UK that was serving food on "decompostable" plates. People put the plates on the ground instead of the bin because they equated "decompostable" with instant decomposition rather then months or years.

    Calum Irvine
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  • That is frustrating to hear Kate. It's a good point that behaviour change has to be linked to awareness of responsibility. Most companies have an understanding of their 'duty of care' for waste, but ordinary people just don't get to see the potential consequences of their waste. I was shocked when I found out that coffee cups can't be recycled - I always thought they were made from a card material, so ended up contaminating waste because I was trying to recycle them!