2.5bn COFFEE cups are thrown away in the UK every year. But how can we get commuters to switch to reusable for their morning jolt.
Last week confronted by a supercool, superhot, tattooed barista, I tentatively asked for my morning hit. In my bag sat a reusable cup; I was armed and ready to do my bit for the environment. But face-to-face with this caffeine-prepping bohemian and suffocated by the melee of commuters be- hind me, I forgot and took a disposable one. Along with my ethics, it ended up in the bin.
On the commute, a decent coffee can offer a chink of light through the morning drizzle. But it has to be convenient – and this is what’s made the disposable cup, well, indispensable. The result? Huge amounts of waste. According to the best guesstimates, my takeaway cup is one of 2.5 billion given away in the UK each year. Surprised? You might well be. But here’s the killer: practically none are recycled.
A new scheme called Simply Cups has been launched to collect and recycle about 3m cups a year. Huhtamaki and Solo Cup Europe were among the first partners as well as retailers such as John Lewis. This month, Costa came on board: it will provide rich pickings for Simply Cups at its concessions dotted across single-occupancy commercial buildings.
Big corporate HQs, where staff drink gal- lons of coffee and all the cups stay on site, will be the scheme’s bread and butter. On- the-go will be a much tougher waste stream to capture, which makes the argument for reusable cups compelling.
There have been several lifecycle analyses on reusable versus disposable, recyclable and compostable cups. One of the most referenced is by Professor Martin Hocking from the University of Victoria in Canada. In 1994 Hocking compared the three types of reusable cups (ceramic, glass and reusable plastic) with two types of disposable cups (paper and polystyrene foam). It’s a bit like paper-scissors-stone, but with more materi- als and more maths. So which wins?
The rule of thumb is that ceramic has the biggest footprint, so you need to use it the most times, followed by plastic and then glass. Foam is also much lower-impact than paper, but no-one uses it any more. The interesting figures are the ones in the first column (see table) for paper, which show that a plastic cup only needs to be used 17 times to beat a paper one. Plastic beats paper – in the long run. Manufacturers of reusable cups suggest these figures still hold true – accepting various caveats, from the efficiency of the dishwasher used to clean the reusable cup to the final destination of the paper one.
“The break-even point for one of our cups [where it becomes greener than a dispos- able one] is about 15 uses,” says KeepCup’s founder, Abigail Forsyth. KeepCups are made from similar materials to plastic milk bottles, so they are durable and can go in the dish- washer. “The challenge is that you sell a cup and you have no idea what happens to it, or how many times it’s been used,” she adds.
James McKay, the founder of UpperCup, says it comes down to breaking a habit: ordering a coffee, drinking it, then throwing the cup in the bin without a real thought for the consequences (a bit like taking bags with you to the supermarket).
“It really takes a product to come along that people love, that they love to use, that enhances their experience, and that represents their values and ideas. I think no matter how much you beat people over the head about the concept, unless you create something that is truly great, people won’t use it.”
My situation the other morning wasn’t be- cause my KeepCup wasn’t cool enough – it is. Nor was it that the barista was too cool – though they are. I didn’t use the cup because it hasn’t yet become habit. Next time – and at least 16 after that – I’ll definitely be using my KeepCup.