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The Disposable Coffee Cup Problem - Lots Of Waste, For A Great Taste

January 22, 2018 2 Comments

The Disposable Coffee Cup Problem - Lots Of Waste, For A Great Taste

Have you ever wondered what happens to that disposable coffee cup, once you're done with your coffee?

Since the invention of plastic and the introduction of supermarkets, we have become a disposable society. We find it very convenient, to use a product for a few minutes and then throw it away when we no longer need it. But what does “away” actually mean? Lets see.

We believe, once that coffee cup or any kind of waste is out of our sight, it's not our problem anymore. We've done our part by throwing the cup in the trash. So what happens next? Your cup along with the rest of the trash, is taken to a landfill. Or a second possible scenario - if you've decided to be "eco-friendly" and put your cup in a recycling bin, it's going to be taken to a recycling facility, sorted and then taken to a landfill once again, because most coffee cups can't be recycled. Reason? The plastic lining that makes them waterproof. The process of recycling (separating the plastic lining from the paper) is just too complicated.

Disposable Coffee Cup
Just one of them. Photo credit: @cupswitch

Let’s have a look at some of the disposable coffee cup facts, to better understand the problem:

  • each year over 500 billion single use coffee cups are used and thrown away around the globe,
  • that single use coffee cup, that you have used for around 15 minutes, will outlast your time on earth (most likely somewhere in a landfill or in the environment),
  • a lot of cups end up in the environment, where they become a major pollution hazard,
  • like most takeaway packaging, the cups are not biodegradable and most of them can't be recycled - even paper cups have a thin layer of plastic lining, which makes recycling difficult,
  • only 1 per 400 cups gets recycled,
  • about 200 liters of water are used in the production of one disposable coffee cup,
  • the production of one single use coffee cup, sends about 0,11 kg of CO2 to the atmosphere,
  • the majority are not made of renewable materials,
  • since you've started reading this article, 100.000 cups have gone to landfills!

There are many organizations trying to fight this problem. Including One Planet Zero which is a zero waste shop, offering many alternatives to disposable coffee cups and Cup switch founded by Megan in New York City, which is an initiative to help New York meet its 2030 Zero Waste goal by eliminating disposable cups. Megan and I have recently started working together, fighting the waste problem on both sides of the Atlantic ocean. 

A summary of Cup Switch

Cup Switch is an initiative that is focusing on reducing (and ultimately eliminating) disposable, single-use cups to help New York city meet its 2030 zero waste goal. The mission is to develop an infrastructure to support and encourage people and business settings to use reusable cups.

The challenge Cup Switch is faced with is habit change. We are a society of convenience, which has had costs in other areas, including the depletion of natural resources and environmental pollution. Changing our lifestyle, like bringing a reusable cup holds is an investment in our planet and future. What is needed to catalyze this change is a switch in perspective.

By using Instagram as a visual medium to build awareness, Cup Switch wants to help people become aware of the waste generated from disposable cups. You can follow Cup Switch here. With this awareness, people have the opportunity to raise questions about the current system and their participation in it which can lead to action. This is the behavior switch, which may involve bringing a reusable cup or asking for drinks in ceramic or glass cups staying in the store.

Cup Switch is currently working on several pilot projects to support businesses and coffee stores operate more sustainably. They will be gathering information and documenting some of the process on social media so stay tuned!

Conveniency versus sustainability

We know many people are having second thoughts about using their own reusable cups when getting coffee, just because it's different from what others are doing and you have to bring your own cup, which means extra work and less convenience. This happened to me once. I was about to get coffee with my reusable coffee cup made of bamboo and somebody politely asked: "Why are you always bringing your own cup, when there are a bunch of cups available here". I smiled and politely replied: "Don't ask me why I'm using my own coffee cup, ask yourself why you are not". Now don't worry if that sounds a bit rude. We are actually friends and I also explained later, why I'm using my own cup and a few hours later, that same person ordered his own reusable coffee cup from my shop. Not too bad.

My point is, you might get asked by others, what is the reason for using your own coffee cup. Be polite and explain to them the actual reason. Don't judge anyone for the same mistake you were making just yesterday. You have to understand some people don’t see any harm in using disposable cups, or they believe that just one person can’t make a difference. But we shouldn’t just blame the consumers. I believe coffee shops should be doing more in terms of reducing waste. Consumers take the single-use cup because it's there. It's available and convenient. But since coffee shops are not doing enough to fight the waste problem caused by their cups, it's time we as consumers take matters into our own hands. Don't get discouraged, if sometimes you feel like you are the only one with your own coffee cup, while everyone else is going for the disposables. Changes like this will not happen overnight. We are slowly moving in the right direction. For example, the UK where the number of cups being thrown away each year is as high as 2.5 billion, is planning to introduce a 25p “latte levy” on top of the price of a drink. It’s kind of a tax for using disposable cups. Some coffee shops already offer discounts for customers with reusable cups. So we can't say nothing is changing, but we can say for sure, changes are happening too slow.

The Problem Of Our Disposable Society
The problem of our disposable society No. 1. Photo credit:

Disposable Coffee Cup Problem
The problem of our disposable society No. 2. Photo credit: @cupswitch

Reusable cups

There’s a lot of reusable cups to be found on the market, some are made of glass, stainless steel, plastic and then you have bamboo which is considered to be the best and most environment friendly option available, because not only is the cup reusable, it is also biodegradable. One of the alternatives that One Planet Zero shop offers, is this reusable bamboo coffee cup with a lid.

Reusable Bamboo Coffee Cup

Looks almost exactly the same as a normal disposable cup, but there's a big difference. This one can be used over and over again and even if something happens to it and you have to throw it "away", don't worry too much. The cup is made of bamboo, which means it will return to nature within a year, if composted.

Use Reusable Coffee Cups
Makes sense. Photo credit:

What about biodegradable disposable cups?

If a cup is only biodegradable and not reusable, we have only solved one part of the problem. We will still need resources (energy, material, work) to produce the cups, that will be thrown away after a single use. Not very sustainable. The only good side about them is that they will biodegrade and not contribute to the waste problem. Besides, these cups are rarely used by coffee shops because they are more expensive and since most consumers don’t really care what kind of cup they use, coffee shops prefer to use cheap ones made of paper and plastic.

A story from my home country

In Slovenia, one of the biggest producers of disposable cup waste, are petrol stations. A few weeks ago I saw this commercial on TV, where a husband asks his wife in the morning, what kind of coffee she would like. She responds: “Your coffee, dear”. Husband drives to the nearest petrol station, gets coffee in their disposable coffee cups, gets home and then pours the coffee into two regular ceramic coffee mugs. Of course the wife is very happy. But I was more interested in finding out what happened to those two disposable cups.

So I decided, to ask the company about this. I found out they use about 15.000 cups per day, so in Slovenia, this company alone is responsible for 5,5 million cups being thrown away each year. I asked them how they collect the cups for recycling and if they encourage people to bring their own cup. Apparently they do inform people to put used cups into a recycling bin. How many cups actually get recycled, is another question. I was a bit disappointed about their attitude towards using reusable cups. They said with so many different customers, they find it difficult to promote the use of reusable cups. Well at least they could have tried, instead of promoting the use of disposable cups in their TV commercials.

So now you know it. There are other more sustainable options. We vote for bamboo cups. What about you? Have you switched to a reusable cup already? Let us know in the comments.

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