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Why the solution to the coffee cup problem isn't simple

Eating & Drinking
Long read

Peggy Manning

16 January 2018

Non-recyclable, recyclable, compostable, biodegradable, and every takeaway cup variant in between - it’s no surprise that consumers are confused and question the best action to take when it comes to coffee cup waste. Peggy Manning, director of Slow Brew Club, fills us in on the complicated world of coffee cups.

The figure of 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups used each year in the UK is actually a conservative estimate when we consider that this was cited by a Which? Report in 2011. It’s suggested that five billion is more likely (Eunomia Research and Consulting), while The Environment Audit Committee’s (EAC) report published earlier this month confirms that fewer than 1 in 400 cups are recycled.

And Britain’s love of on the go coffee shows no signs of abating. Each coffee cup takes around 30 years to break down.

Seemingly simple at first glance, coffee cup waste transpires to be a complex problem when we take into account that single use cups are used on the go, not all cups are made of the same materials, and there’s the matter of contamination.

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Will disposable coffee cups become socially unacceptable now we know they take 30 years to break down?

Seemingly simple at first glance, coffee cup waste transpires to be a complex problem when we take into account that single use cups are used on the go, not all cups are made of the same materials, and there’s the matter of contamination.

Coffee cups, and most takeaway packaging, are often lined with polyethylene plastic, allowing it to hold hot beverages without the paper fibres disintegrating. Until very recently the technology did not exist to separate materials such as those in single use plastics which meant everything went to landfill, oftentimes indirectly via a recycling centre. The issue is 4-fold: manufacturing; disposal; recycling; and consumer behaviour.

If cups are not manufactured with the possibility for recycling, it goes to landfill.

If consumers on the go don’t dispose of their cups in a correct recycling collection bin, it goes to landfill.

If the cup is recyclable and has been disposed of and collected properly, there are currently only three recycling facilities in the UK capable of recycling these cups.

Another major consideration is consumer behaviour. 

If all coffee drinkers in the UK switched to a reusable cup, they would save enough energy to power more than 37,000 three bedroom homes for one year

Research shows that discount incentives of up to 25p for bringing your own reusable cup has had very little impact across the major coffee retailers like Costa, Starbucks, Cafe Nero, Tesco, Morrisons, and Pret A Manger - with a take up rate of between 1-2%.

Larger discounts of 50p or more however, like the initiative introduced by Pret this month has proven to be more effective. And perhaps not so surprising, adding a charge makes the most demonstrable impact in the reduction of disposable cup use. 

The EAC has recommended a ‘latte levy’ to be set at a minimum of 25p, and if all cups are not fully recyclable by 2023 they should be banned. It has also criticised the coffee retail industry for not doing more in light of the poor uptake in discount incentives and overall recycling of single use cups.

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We all love a winter warmer, but until recently no one considered the fact that almost none of our cups are being recycled

What’s the solution to the coffee cup crisis? 

It can’t be just down to the cafes. There are many organisations championing the fight against coffee cup waste.

Cupclub is the world’s first reusable coffee cup system, launching in London this March. It sells reusable coffee cups to retailers; their customers drink from them then they drop them off at convenient drop points. Cupclub collect them, wash them and deliver back to cafes.

It's a halfway measure between where we are now and everyone using reusable cups and puts the emphasis more on the retailers than the consumers.

It ran a pilot scheme at the RCA, London, over a period of nine weeks resulting in 4% increase in sales, as well as reducing single use plastics by 50%. 

“The ‘latte levy’ is a step in the right direction towards creating behavioural change in the same way as the 5p charge for plastic bags charge has worked. I do think it's unfair to charge coffee drinkers extra without giving them a viable solution. Reusable coffee cups, which you have to carry around yourself, are not that convenient. And the levy doesn't tackle other packaging waste,” says Safia Qureshi, founder and CEO Cupclub. 

However KeepCup, the market leader in reusable cups, found that it sold 250,000 KeepCups in the UK in the last three months of 2017, it's biggest sales quarter to date. Globally, the brand has sold five million reusable cups.

If all coffee drinkers in the UK switched to a reusable cup, they would save enough energy to power more than 37,000 three bedroom homes for one year, it reckons.

"At KeepCup we fully support the proposed 'Latte Levy' and agree that we must all pay for the excessive waste we create," says Abigail Forsyth, co-founder and managing director of KeepCup. 

“However, the House of Commons Environment Audit Committee report still talks heavily about recycling even though disposable cups are not recyclable. This is something that many consumers continue to be unaware of. So why aren’t we focussing more on reduction and reuse instead?"

Hubbub Foundation has teamed up with Simply Cups - the UK’s only service dedicated to collecting and recycling paper and plastic cups for second-life materials (see here for our story on what they get turned into) - and successfully ran a collection pilot scheme in Manchester. “In our #1MoreShot experiment we found that publicly accessible but managed spaces such as libraries, hospitals and universities collected a high volume of cups with limited contamination,” explains Trewin Restorick, CEO of Hubbub. 

Surfers Against Sewage is one of the UK’s leading environmental charities at the forefront of campaigning for cleaner water, and has been instrumental in lobbying for 5p plastic bags. It’s now fighting to eliminate all single use plastics and is supporting regional campaigns to get rid of plastic straws as well as coffee cups.

There has also been a visible rise of manufacturers producing eco-friendly and sustainable food packaging. Vegware products are made from ‘plants not plastics’, their range includes coffee cups to cutlery, from deli containers to sandwich boxes and they’re all fully compostable.

British master papermakers James Cropper Plc is one of the three recycling facilities in the UK capable of recycling coffee cups. They have pioneered several initiatives that embrace a circular economy with coffee cup waste.

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We made our Christmas card-origami decorations out of paper made from recycled coffee cups

Makermet

pebble magazine made its Christmas cards (which doubled as a cool origami decoration - thanks Makermet) with GFSmith – a paper manufacturer who makes a range called Extract (with the help of James Cropper) that is made with 100% recycled coffee cups. 

Working with Selfridges to upcycle disposable cups from their Oxford Street HQ and store, the paper produced is then converted into retail shopping bags, with the final product containing 20% cup fibre, with one large bag containing the equivalent of one 8oz cup.

We’ve all seen the groundswell of interest around single use plastic waste in 2018. 

Often pushed forward by consumers it’s no longer enough for businesses to say they operate in an ethical and sustainable way - consumers are voting with their wallets. With recent high profile campaigns highlighting ocean plastics and its sources such as Trash Isles, and prominent programming with Blue Planet II, it is clear that even with recyclable packaging our infrastructure is wholly inadequate. China recently announced they will ban any further imported waste. Environment Secretary Michael Gove was asked about the impact of this ban on the UK, and he admitted to ‘not giving it sufficient thought’.

Blame often falls at the feet of high street chains when they are usually the ones investing in pioneering trials or new technologies. It’s reductive to let that argument continue as it becomes more apparent than ever that a strategy of joined up thinking and action is needed, not blame. 

There is an appetite for cross industry collaboration to eradicate existing waste. But not while the government defers responsibility to any one section of the industry or while the retailers to be complacent with doing just enough – all of us, from consumers to the government need to address our impact.

Meet more people who care about plastic waste, coffee cups and the planet in the pebble pod

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