What's next for the coffee cup?

Our national obsession with coffee is high profile news. There are 16,500 coffee shops across the UK, as well as many smaller in-store or at work vending machines and grabbing a cappuccino is a social activity that millions of us take part in every day.

What's next for the coffee cup?

However, with active campaigns about waste hitting the news, should people think again about that take-away cuppa, what happens to it after it is thrown away and what alternatives do we have to non-recyclable paper?

50 Billion disposable coffee cups a year

Figures show that each year 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups are used in the UK, and over 50 billion globally. As outlined in the War on Waste program list night, this is a problem because nearly all of the cups end up in landfill, enough to line up around the earth over 1000 times.

Whilst we may think they are just made of paper, many active campaigns are now trying to raise awareness about the difficulty in recycling disposable cups. Major coffee retailers report that their cups are 100% recyclable, and this is true. Yet, it is equally true that the polyethylene plastic used to line the cups cannot be easily separated. In the UK there is actually only 1 plant which can do this properly. This can lead to the shocking statistic that possibly only one in 1000 are recycled.

Now, whilst some reporting in this area may be sensationalised it is worth asking a question about what we could do to alleviate the problem and reduce the waste we are creating.

So... what's the answer?

Some larger coffee chains are offering discounts on your drink if you bring your own mug but will this really make a difference? In simple terms it looks like it should solve the problem, but in reality is everyone going to carry around their own mug? After introducing a 25p discount to address waste and incentivise the average user, Starbucks commissioned a Global Responsibility Report from 2014. The results were not encouraging. Whilst there was an initial spike in customer change, this has basically flat-lined over time.

New approaches from both consumers and businesses are being trialled. Starbucks are trialling a new disposable cup which can be recycled easily in a number of stores. It remains to be seen whether these cups will become standardised as the cost effectiveness and practicality when used in bulk has yet to be seen. We can hope however that the development of a new recyclable cup, coupled with changing consumer habits will mean more recycling and less landfill.

Workplace coffee

Coffee is not only something taken out in coffee shops. Let’s also take this from another perspective and look at the workplace where we still see a mixture of options between disposable and ceramic mugs being provided in canteens. The appearance of branded coffee machines in office kitchens is a recent trend. Many of these machines require a disposable cup with your drink of choice. The appeal of a quality latté with your lunch is easy to understand but does it need to come in a disposable cup? Larger offices and places of work increasingly have an independent coffee retailer on site. The default policy of these retailers is to issue a disposable cup which satisfies the customers’ needs, whether that be to take it back to their desk or drink it there. Most of us have a mug at work and so using machines which allow reusable mugs to be fitted or to take our cup of choice to the coffee retailer would take no major overhaul of our working habits. Arguably there is a health and safety liability concern for workplaces who facilitate people wandering around offices burning themselves on hot cappuccinos in ceramics without a lid. This issue however can be overcome with common sense or reusable cups with a lid.

Nearly all businesses who have environmental management systems in place or who are moving in that direction, will know that raising awareness of initiatives and environmental issues is key. Publicising simple initiatives like changing to ceramic mugs can even be used to fulfil obligations within environmental accreditations.

Control and responsibility

It is impossible to control what people do, but it is possible to influence the personal choices people make. Major high-street coffee shop chains have policies that mean ceramic mugs are issued to ‘drink in’ customers by default. This means they can control the waste incurred in store however the vast majority of customers leave shops carrying disposable mugs. When a ‘take out’ options is chosen, the ceramic option is removed. Once customers leave the store it becomes impossible to control what happens next and we know that even when cups are placed in recycling bins they often find their way to landfill. Shops have the opportunity to influence what happens to other associated packaging, such as the lid and any cup holders. These can usually be recycled and companies should ensure they are correctly labelled or advertised as recyclable to ensure the greatest consumer engagement.

Businesses do not have the same constraints and recycling bins can be located in close proximity to consumers of coffee when they are finished. In a workplace it is possible to place recycling bins alongside general waste and therefore make separating packaging easier for the user. Through awareness, businesses can then mitigate at least some of the environmental impact the packaging has or alternatively remove the availability of disposable cups altogether. This element of control makes businesses distinct from a coffee shop. Therefore, a transition towards reusable cups as standard it is worth a serious environmental/cost evaluation.

The lifecycle cost of ceramic mugs; are they actually better?

Financially the evidence says that yes, if businesses make a switch to ceramic, savings can be made over a period of time. Based on the average cost per serving of a ceramic and disposable cup, studies cite that a saving of £30 pounds per 2000 servings can be made. Following the transfer from disposable to ceramic, a business can expect payback from the initial investment in 2-3 months.

Whilst an individual ceramic cup will always have a higher carbon footprint than an individual disposable cup, they do have to be washed between uses. Studies show that to breakeven purely for energy use, ceramic cups must be used at least 31 times to justify a complete switch from paper to ceramic. When you adjust this for washing (in an efficient dishwasher) this number rises to around 125 uses. Whilst this might seem a lot, the average a ceramic cup is used around 2,000 times before it breaks or is thrown away. The ceramic cup pulls even further ahead as it uses vastly less space in landfill at the end of life.


The result of all this waste is that many businesses who provide recycling initiatives and the individuals who have been using them are having their efforts undermined every time a disposable cup is sent to landfill.

There is an opportunity for businesses to engage on this issue and be an important and influential part of a wider programme of carbon reductions. With new revised proposals on circular economy initiatives from the EU, it is logical for businesses to move towards a ‘closed loop’ policy on coffee cups. To borrow from Starbucks’ mission statement, to adopt reusable mugs “one person, one cup and one neighbourhood at a time” can be good for you and your business. It is a high profile issue and a good first step towards a circular economy which can be environmentally friendly, enhance a good CSR policy and save you money.

If you are a business who invests in an environmental management system, then this issue will have a negative impact upon recycling and waste targets. The use of a cup is seemingly only a small part of a company’s carbon footprint. It is however becoming a highly publicised issue and very visible to staff and other stakeholders.

James Gibbs

Topics: Waste & resource management
Tags: | Circular economy | Engagement Week 2021 | environmental management | packaging | war
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