Plastic coffee cups: Long-term waste and current reductions

Over the decades, drinking a cup of tea or coffee has become an expected part of waking up. However, in recent years the amount of people drinking their morning coffee from a disposable plastic coffee cup has skyrocketed. As press about the Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch and other dumping grounds worldwide increases, people are making the connection that the coffee cups and stirrers that they use today become piles and piles of rubbish over time.

Why Not Recycle?

Given the robust paper recycling industry, many people don’t know that disposable coffee cups cannot be processed by traditional paper recycling methods. The plastic liner that makes the coffee cup watertight also makes it require a special facility for recycling. The biggest challenge, however, is not the processing of the cups: there are already facilities that can recycle plastic coffee cups. Rather, coffee cups are thrown away and there is no financial incentive for processors to collect and ship coffee cups to a specialised recycling plant.

The most popular solutions have been to switch to compostable cups, which break down even when placed in landfills, and schemes that push people toward recycling more deliberately or using reusable cups.

The “Latte Levy”

Recent discussion of reducing coffee cup waste has led to the introduction of a new proposed fee of 25p on all drinks served in disposable cups, with the goal being to eliminate plastic cup waste by 2023 through a combination of recycling and discouraging use of these cups. The proceeds from the fee would be used to update the recycling infrastructure in the UK so that more items can be processed for future use.

Waitrose’s Cup Ban

The loyalty program at Waitrose stores offers free tea or coffee to certain customers, but they have recently announced that they won’t offer disposable cups for those drinks. The goal is to do their part in the reduction of non-recyclable plastic cups, and because the free tea and coffee are part of a “perk” of shopping there, customers should get in the habit of bringing reusable cups to receive their beverages from self-service machines.

Costa Makes a Name for Cup Recycling

Popular coffee shop Costa Coffee has made a commitment to recycle as many cups as they sell by 2020. This is a bigger claim than it sounds on the surface: while it is one thing to find a way to recycle the combination of paper and plastic lining, it is another to locate and gather all the takeaway coffee cups that leave the stores. Coffee customers are encouraged to recycle their cups in bins in the stores, but for those who dispose of their cups later on, there will now be a financial incentive for rubbish collectors and processors to gather together Costa cups and sell them back to the company.

Incentives for Reusable Cups

Boston Tea Party, a coffee chain, now refuses to offer disposable cups at all. They offer options to customers, they may bring their own reusable mug, purchase a reusable cup, or place a deposit on a reusable cup that they receive back when they return the mug. Other chains, like Starbucks in the UK, are placing small fees on disposable cups to make it more appealing to bring one’s own mug or drink from a special Starbucks reusable cup. Those whose good intentions would have them bring their own mug often forget, so adding the financial element may be what pushes people to change.

With 2.5 billion coffee cups thrown away last year, it is more important than ever for these waste reduction strategies to work. To learn more about how our daily choices affect the planet, check out our discussion of carbon footprints.


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