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Disposable Coffee Cups – the real enemy?

28th March 2018

Disposable Coffee Cups – the real enemy?

Apparently, fewer than 1% of the 2.5Bn disposable coffee cups we use each year in the UK are recycled. If an individual uses a single-use disposable cup every day of the year, that’s 10Kg of waste. The UK Environment Department is alleged to dispose of 1,400 cups per working day… and so on. The list of uncomfortable statistics seems endless.

It’s undoubtedly true that this is an area where action is required, and in January of this year the Environmental Audit Committee set out a strategy for facing the mountain of disposable cups.

Some MPs have called for a 25p levy on disposable cups, presumably to be paid by the customer rather than the retailer. Many other ideas for addressing the problem have been mooted: more recycling points, hire-a-cup schemes and more. We first blogged about this issue in 2016.

As a society we appear wedded to our takeaway coffee, and the coffee cups have become a touchstone for the war on waste that’s being waged in many areas. But have they been unreasonably demonised, even given that the vast majority of those 2.5Bn cups per year cannot be recycled?

Many out-of-home food and drink retailers have committed to eliminating plastic straws; this has been hailed as a major step forward, and it is. But plastic straws and disposable drinking cups represent a tiny fraction of the landfill waste we produce by volume and weight, so why do they have an elevated profile in the media and in our imagination?

The answer to this is simple: these disposable items represent our ‘disposable society’. We have become accustomed, perhaps only in the last 50 or 60 years, to single-use disposable items. ‘Bin lorries’ used to be called ‘dustcarts’ for a reason; in Victorian times everything was re-used, repaired or recycled, even rags and bones were collected and recycled, and all that was left as the waste output from a home was dust.

In order to address our wanton waste production, it is useful to have a picture in our minds that articulates the enemy – and why not a non-recyclable single-use coffee cup for adults and a single-use plastic straw for children? It also helps that some high street coffee outlets are coloured in many people’s mind by their careful management of their tax liability to the UK.

The energy, editorial acreage, media coverage and pressure from society being put into this issue is resulting in change, although arguably not at the speed required. At the recent Packaging Innovations conference at the NEC, several new products were selected to be considered for a prize; the winner was a genuinely recyclable coffee cup produced by Premium Board of Finland this can be recycled or is genuinely biodegradable without plastic residue. And that must be a giant stride forward; let’s see that 25p levy for single-use non-recyclable cups to force the retailers to change.

It is now possible to buy foldable, reusable cups which would fit into a handbag or pocket. Perhaps more members of the public could be persuaded to invest in these than the lower cost options available in many take-away outlets which people can’t easily store after use.

A further thought; Coca Cola are trialling re-usable plastic bottles with RFID chips that can be sensed by filling machines; could similar technology be used by coffee shops so that regular users didn’t even need to ask for what they wanted and were charged automatically, this shortening the long queues in coffee outlets? That would reduce waste and frustration, and reduce costs for retailers.

The French Government has announced a ban on disposable plastic cups and plates to come into effect in January 2020. Will the UK follow suit?