Reusable coffee cups aren’t entirely eco-friendly

It can take between 20 and 100 uses for a reusable cup to offset its higher greenhouse gas emissions compared to a disposable

Is any item more symbolic of our modern, disposable culture than the single-use coffee cup? In March 2016, they were vilified in celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s “War on Waste” campaign, when he drove a bus through London covered in 10,000 coffee cups: the number the UK allegedly uses every two minutes.

Thanks to a thin plastic lining that makes them waterproof, most paper recycling mills can’t efficiently process these coffee cups, and the majority are incinerated or sent to landfill. Even worse, they are typically made using virgin tree-fibre rather than recycled paper, due to hygiene and food-contact requirements.

Although Fearnley-Whittingstall’s campaign got many people outraged, our drinking habits haven’t slowed since – the number of coffee shops in the UK is projected to grow from 20,000 to 30,000 by 2025. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since the industry provides jobs, helps to preserve high streets, and sustains coffee growers in developing countries. But if coffee shops are here to stay, what is the best way to deal with the mountain of waste they generate?

According to the waste hierarchy, preventing waste should be the first priority. Reusable cups have surged in popularity and most major coffee shops offer a discount for customers that bring their own (often worth far more than the disposable cup itself). Nevertheless, reusable cups typically make less than 5 per cent of sales. The unavoidable truth is that it simply isn’t convenient for people on the run to remember their cup, carry it around and wash it out between uses. What’s more, it can take between 20 and 100 uses for a reusable cup to offset its higher greenhouse gas emissions compared to a disposable, due to the greater amount of energy and material required to make a durable product and the hot water needed to wash them.

Compostable coffee cups can seem an attractive alternative since in theory they can leave no harmful residues or litter. But they only break down in industrial composting facilities along with collected food waste, and need dedicated collection streams free from non-compostable materials. With a bit of planning they can work, as demonstrated in the London 2012 Olympic Games, but at the moment the UK is not set up to deal with compostable packaging. For now, they are best suited to closed environments such as canteens or tourist attractions where they are the only type of packaging used.

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