Disposable coffee cups are a common sight in coffee shops all over the world. They are both cost-effective for businesses and convenient for customers. However, with only one out of every 400 coffee cups recycled in major consuming countries such as the United Kingdom, they pose a significant problem for rising waste levels. For a variety of reasons, they are also difficult to recycle.
To combat this, an increasing number of cafés offer discounts to customers who bring their own reusable mugs. Despite this, research indicates that consumer participation is low – figures that have only been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
So, what’s the deal with recycling single-use cups? And why aren’t more people opting for reusable options? To learn more, I interviewed industry experts about these issues – and what can be done to solve them.
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Takeaway cups and waste
Many disposable coffee cups are made of petroleum-based plastics such as styrofoam and polypropylene, or polyethylene-coated paper. These materials are ideal because they retain heat well and prevent leakage.
Single-use cups, on the other hand, require a lot of resources to make. Paper cups are estimated to use 20 million trees and 12 billion gallons of water in the United States alone each year. While plastic cups require fewer natural resources to produce, they require significantly more energy to manufacture.
Although styrofoam and polypropylene are both inexpensive and widely available to manufacturers, they are difficult to recycle. Paper cups are also problematic because they must be treated in order for the plastic lining to be removed.
Dr. Dagny Tucker is the founder of Vessel, a reusable mug company based in the United States. She informs me that Vessel has launched a reusable cup scheme for cafés in which customers scan QR codes on Vessel cups and return used cups to kiosks or participating coffee shops within 5 days.
According to Dagny, the lack of access to recycling facilities and the high cost of recycling make it difficult to reduce the waste associated with single-use cups. “Only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled, and most recyclable plastic is downcycled after approximately 400 uses,” she claims.
“Globally, recyclers are struggling to find end markets for the plastics that pass through their material reclamation facilities.” The cost of virgin plastics is also less than the cost of recycling plastics, which is not economically appealing to producers.”
Every year, an estimated half a trillion single-use coffee cups are discarded due to a general lack of recycling incentives. Once discarded, styrofoam and polypropylene cups can take up to 450 years to degrade, while plastic-lined cups can take up to 30 years. When these materials degrade, they emit carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, adding to greenhouse gas emissions.
Plastics also degrade into microplastics, which spread throughout the world and pollute our air, soil, and water, harming wildlife and the environment. While the impact on human health is unknown, scientists estimate that each of us consumes 100,000 microplastic particles per year.
Biodegradable and compostable cups
Coffee cups can be made from biodegradable and compostable materials that degrade into their constituent parts over time. However, there are some significant distinctions between the two terms. Compostable cups are biodegradable, but not every biodegradable material is compostable.
Biodegradable materials degrade into their constituent elements over time. Compostable matter, on the other hand, decomposes over time into organic compounds known as “humus.” This then feeds the surrounding environment with nutrients.
Furthermore, these systems are only effective if consumers are made aware that their cups are compostable or biodegradable and have access to appropriate disposal facilities.
“Some coffee cups are compostable,” Dagny says, “but few cities have public composting services or a composting culture.”
“In Europe, the majority of municipal waste (24 percent) is disposed of in landfills or incinerated” (27 percent ). Less than half (31%) is recycled, and even less is composted (17 percent ). When a consumer does not or is unable to compost their cups, they are disposed of in a landfill.”
Under the right conditions, industrial-compostable materials must degrade in 12 weeks and biodegrade completely in six months, according to EU law. Compostable and biodegradable cups, on the other hand, can last for years if exposed to as little oxygen, heat, and airflow as possible.
Landfills, unlike industrial compost heaps, are not monitored or aerated on a regular basis. As a result, microorganisms anaerobically decompose compostable and biodegradable matter (without oxygen). As a result, the materials emit methane, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.
Recent recycling challenges
Sumit Lodhia is an Accounting Professor at the University of South Australia in Adelaide. “Covid-19 has exacerbated the problem of coffee waste,” he says. “Because of the emphasis on takeaway, there has been an increase in the use of takeaway cups and a decrease in the use of reusable cups.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has altered how the global hospitality industry has accepted reusable cups over the last year or so. To adhere to previously established Covid-safe measures, many cafés only used takeaway cups and utensils and refused to accept customers’ reusable cups.
KeepCup, a reusable coffee cup company based in Melbourne, Australia, is co-founded and managed by Abigail Forsyth. “Single-use cups are incorrectly equated with hygiene,” she says, and a surge in plastic waste has been reported as a result of the pandemic. Convenience culture has crept back into everyday life in response to this setback.”
However, waste production has been steadily increasing since before the pandemic. Dagny points out that a key component of this has been the cessation of recyclable exports to China in 2023.
China began importing and processing recyclable waste from around the world in 1992, eventually reaching a level of around 45 percent over a 26-year period. However, in 2018, the Chinese government banned recyclable waste imports in order to increase investment in the country’s recycling infrastructure.
“China has closed its doors to recyclables from the United States and Europe,” Dagny says. Prior to the ban, 95 percent of plastics collected for recycling in the European Union and 70 percent in the United States were sold and shipped to China.”
When the ban went into effect, national recycling facilities in the EU and the US became overburdened, and companies producing single-use plastics failed to reduce production in order to meet their targets.
“When they stopped buying imported recyclables, recyclers turned to domestic markets, resulting in massive oversupply and a subsequent price drop,” Dagny explains. “This is why recyclers are streamlining their operations and limiting the number and types of materials they accept.”
Reusable cups: The challenges
To reduce the demand for takeaway cups and fight waste, we must first understand why consumers prefer them over reusable mugs.
The importance of convenience cannot be overstated. “Reusable cups, for example, are easily forgotten at home or in the car,” Dagny says.
While customers may have good intentions regarding the amount of waste they produce, visiting a coffee shop is frequently an impromptu experience, which leads to the use of single-use cups.
Takeaway cups are also a convenient way to save time and effort when drinking coffee on the go. They can be easily discarded, whereas reusable cups must be stored and washed at home.
Sumit and his research team conducted interviews with consumers, café owners, and policymakers in South Australia in 2019. Unfortunately, they discovered that discounts are insufficient to entice people to switch to reusable cups.
“Discounts did not encourage recycling,” he says. “A few cents off was not worth the effort and made no difference to customers.” Most people would not even take advantage of the discount.”
So how about going the other way and charging a premium for customers who want to use reusable cups?
In the United Kingdom, Starbucks trialled a £0.05 charge for customers ordering drinks in paper cups in an effort to encourage people to switch to reusable alternatives. And, while 48% of customers said they would bring their own mugs to avoid the charge, uptake for these schemes has been around 1% to 2% across the country’s coffee shops.
Encouraging consumers to use reusable cups
Change is required to permanently encourage the transition away from disposable cups.
Large-scale infrastructure projects to recycle single-use coffee cups will require years of government support and investment, implying that it is not a viable option right now. However, businesses all over the world are increasingly offering circular waste management solutions.
“Several reusable cup companies have entered the market, recognising that single-use plastics are a problem,” Dagny says. “As the dangers of single-use plastics become better understood, more money is being allocated to raise awareness.”
Vessel’s reusable mugs are made of stainless steel. Customers can order Vessel mugs at participating cafés for the same price as disposable cups, and they can be easily returned to one of many convenient drop-off locations.
Dagny explains that this circular system benefits both cafés and customers. Consumers don’t have to remember to bring or wash their own reusable mugs, and cafés pay a similar price to takeaway cups.
For Abigail, it’s more about influencing other people.
“Knowing that others are doing the same thing is one of the biggest motivators to avoid single-use cups,” Abigail says. “Lining up in the coffee line with one immediately diverts a single-use cup from landfill and signals intent to those around.”
This social change is necessary in creating a circular system. The more people adopt reusable mugs, the more normal and acceptable it will become.
This social change is required to create a circular system. The more people who use reusable mugs, the more common and acceptable they will become.
In the current coffee industry landscape, it appears unlikely that the number of single-use cups ending up in landfills will decrease until better recycling frameworks are developed. While coffee shops and consumers have limited influence over the establishment of these infrastructures, demanding them from governing bodies is critical.
Meanwhile, coffee shops can control how they serve coffee, and customers can be more conscious of the containers they use. Millions of takeaway cups can be kept out of landfills and from polluting the environment by investing in more circular systems and implementing reusable mug schemes.