Reusable vs disposable – the coffee cup conundrum

Reusable vs disposable – the coffee cup conundrum

  • The UK throws away 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups every year – less than 1% are recycled
  • There are only three recycling plants in the UK which can deal with drink contaminated recyclables
  • The UK is one of Europe’s largest takeaway coffee consumers with one in five of us visiting a coffee shop every day
  • A reusable coffee cup can have a better environmental impact than a paper cup in just one month

For years now, we’ve been hearing about the damaging impact of single use plastic. Supermarkets no longer hand out free carrier bags and the majority of shoppers usually remember to bring their own bag but we’re still not seeing the same trend when it comes to coffee shops.

Whilst there’s certainly no denying the rise in use of reusable coffee cups, observe any high street coffee shop and you’ll see more customers walk out with a disposable cup than a reusable one. Most of the larger chains have worked hard to up their recycling game, they offer recycling hubs and discounts to reusable cup customers but why is it so hard? When it comes to disposable hot drink cups, it’s the polyethylene liner that throws a spanner into the recycling works, this liner maybe great at keeping your drink inside the paper cup, but it doesn’t recycle easily.

It’s great that these days, you can drop your single use coffee cup back at the coffee shop and they’ll recycle it. However, for many, the main attraction of the takeaway coffee is you can take it away. By the time you’ve finished it you’re at your office, on the train, back home etc. and that handy recycling point is much further away than a landfill bin.

It’s not just the end of its life that makes the disposable coffee cup so bad for the environment. Before that single use coffee cup even gets used, it’s an ecological problem. Most disposable cups are made from virgin paper pulp rather than recycled paper. This means resource was expended into felling trees, making paper and global shipping only to be used on a single cup of coffee that’s more often than not, relegated to landfill.

Whilst coffee shops do their best to encourage reusable cups and recycling programmes and a ‘latte levy’ is being debated by ministers, it’s the consumer mindset that can have the single biggest impact on this challenge. Just like we’re all so used to taking our bags for life to the supermarket now, we need to adopt the same attitude when it comes to our morning flat white.

Research by RECYC-QUÉBEC looked at the environmental impact of coffee cups and found that the reusable coffee cup would have a better environmental impact than a paper cup in as few as 20 uses. That means a reusable coffee cup used just once a day instead of a paper cup would have a better impact on the environment in just one month if used once a day! With some high street coffee chains offering 50p discounts every time you use your reusable cup; it will have soon paid for itself by this time too!

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