Going to waste

That paper cup you’re hoping to recycle is destined for landfill – like billions more. Surprised? David Burrows explains why and does the math on greener options

Last week, confronted by this supercool, superhot, tattooed barista, I tentatively asked for my morning hit. In my bag sat a reusable cup; I was armed and ready to do my bit for the environment. But, being face-to-face with this caffeine-prepping Bohemian and suffocated by the melee of commuters behind me, I left it be and took a disposable one. Along with my ethics, it ended up in the bin.

This is probably a situation with which many of you can empathise. On the daily commute, a decent coffee can offer a chink of light, a quick pick me up to be enjoyed before the daily grind begins. But coffee-on-the-commute has to be convenient – and it’s this that has made the disposable cup, well, indispensable.

The result? Huge amounts of waste. It’s estimated that my takeaway cup is just one of 2.5 billion given away in the UK each year. And here’s the killer, practically none of them are recycled.

“If you turn up at a waste company with 20 tonnes of paper cups, they won’t touch them,” says Peter Goodwin, a director at Closed Loop Environmental Solutions UK. “Your council [or your company] might take them away in the recycling bin, but they end up in landfill or in incinerators; I’m confident none of them are recycled.”

The problem stems from the fact that paper cups are not just made of paper – they’re also 5% polyethylene, in the form of a thin coating that prevents your cup of Joe turning to mush. But because it’s fused to the paper layers, separating the two materials is very difficult; so, no one has bothered and paper cups have been a constant, though contaminant, in the recycling streams (check out page 10 for details of a new recycling scheme).

If this is all new to you, you’re certainly not alone. A survey by consumer group Which? showed that eight in 10 people think they can dispose of takeaway cups in paper and cardboard recycling facilities, though half throw them in the general waste anyway.

Refill and Reuse

It’s not just coffee-drinkers who are confused. Hardly a week goes by without one company or another purporting to have ‘gone green’ (shudder) by introducing compostable or biodegradable cups. This isn’t a bad idea: companies like Vegware have produced cups lined with PLA (cornstarch), instead of plastic, which results in a “carbon saving of 51 per cent” (the company’s figure) and makes them compostable. Compostable, not recyclable.

This can be a problem, not least for the commuting coffee-drinker who is left with three options: carry the compostable cup to work and dispose of it in the canteen (provided food waste is collected separately); carry it around and pop it in the kitchen caddie at home; or take it to your local composting site.

“If compostable cups end up in landfill then there’s no real benefit,” says Andrew Tolley, co-founder of Harris+Hoole and Taylor Street Baristas. “At Harris+Hoole we use compostable because we see them as ‘the least evil’ option.”

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather carry a reusable cup around than a dirty old compostable one. That seems the least evil solution of all, but it’s far from being the most popular.

Take Starbucks, which set a target in 2008 to sell 25 per cent of its coffee in reusable cups by 2015, but has got no further than about 1.5 per cent. It’s now adjusted the target to five per cent served in reusable tumblers. As one blogger, put it, “they have shifted the responsibility from something they do, like provide reusable cups, to something you do, which is buy a refillable cup.”

Those in speciality coffee also admit the going has been tough. “We’re really keen to encourage our customers to use reusable cups, but only a handful of our regulars do,” says Darren Elliott, operations director at Timberyard coffee shop in London, which sells KeepCups.

KeepCup markets itself as “the cool way to drink hot coffee”, with a product range to suit all tastes. The latest addition, KeepCup Brew, won ‘most innovative product’ at the London Coffee Festival. With fully tempered soda lime glass, a hard lid with a larger drinking hole and a cork vessel, there is little doubt that the days of metallic-tasting thermos cups are long gone. Now, reusable cups are about beauty, the beverage and the barista (and at just a tenner each, they’re value for money, too).

“Those supercool baristas can be really intimidating, and some people are afraid to ask to have their reusable cups filled,” says KeepCup founder Abigail Forsyth. “We actually started KeepCup because we couldn’t find a good-quality cup, or one that fitted on the machine. I think the rise of speciality coffee has helped [us], because part of that scene is all about sustainability.”

Although sales figures are elusive, manufacturers are confident that interest in reusable cups is on the rise in the UK, albeit slowly. In Australia, the trend for reuse is more advanced – it’s worth noting that KeepCup, UpperCup and Joco all started there. One big hurdle remains convincing coffee-drinkers that the cups are much better than even a few years ago.

“The poor quality and aesthetic design of [previous iterations] meant that people never really connected with reusable cups enough to want to use them day in, day out,” says James McKay, founder of UpperCup. “Either they looked terrible; were clunky; were made from low-density plastics that would absorb flavours and smells; or they were made from glass that was too fragile or would become too hot. People want to use reusable cups, but they haven’t had a high-quality choice that reflected their coffee tastes and habits.”

Now they do. Of course, convincing customers that the cup won’t affect the drinking experience is one thing; ensuring they bring it with them every day is quite another. After all, this is where the environmental benefit exists. But how many times do you need to re-use your cup in order to justify the purchase?

The Greener Options

This is complicated. Plenty of life cycle analyses (intensely detailed studies that track the environmental impacts of products from ‘birth to death’) have been done to compare reusable versus disposable, recyclable and compostable cups. One of the most referenced is that carried out by Professor Martin Hocking from the University of Victoria, in Canada.

Hocking compared the three types of reusable cups (ceramic, glass and reusable plastic) to two types of disposable cups (paper and polystyrene foam). It’s a bit like rock, paper, scissors, but with more materials and more maths.

The general rule of thumb is that ceramic has the biggest footprint, so you need to use it the most amount of times, followed by plastic and then glass. Foam is also much lower impact than paper, but no one uses them anymore.

The interesting figures are the ones which show that a plastic cup, for instance, only needs to be used 17 times to ‘beat’ (environmentally-speaking) a paper one. So, buy a reusable cup, use it at least 17 times and you’ll be greener.

Plastic beats paper (in the long run). It’s a figure that the likes of UpperCup and KeepCup feel is about right – accepting the various caveats, from the efficiency of the dishwasher used to clean the reusable cup to the final destination of the paper one.

“There’s about the same amount of plastic in one of our cups as 20 disposable ones,” says KeepCup’s Forsyth. “The break even point for one of our cups [where it becomes greener than a disposable one]
is about 15 uses.”

Creating a New Habit

KeepCups are made from similar materials to plastic milk bottles, so they are durable and can go in the dishwasher. They can also be recycled when they ‘die’. So, do they know how often the average person uses one? It’s something Forsyth would definitely like to get a handle on.

“The challenge is that you sell a cup and you have no idea what happens to it, or how many times it’s been used. So in August we’re starting a new programme in which customers can make pledges; we’re hoping to create a cycle of communication and collect data based on people’s pledges to see where we are.”

UpperCups’ McKay says the challenge will be breaking the UK habit of ordering a coffee, drinking it, then throwing the cup in the bin without a thought for the consequences (a bit like the habit of taking your own bags to the supermarket).

“We’re seeing some positive awareness around reusing,” he says, “but I believe that it takes a product to come along that people love; they love to use, that enhances their experience, and that represents their values and ideas to actually change and influence their behaviour. No matter how much you beat people over the head about the concept, unless you create something that is truly great, people won’t use it.”

My situation over coffee the other morning wasn’t because my KeepCup wasn’t cool enough – it is. Nor was it that the barista was too cool – though they are. The reason I didn’t use the cup is because I might be perceived as ignorant. Ignorant of the beauty (the drink, not the barista), hard work and passion that had gone into this direct-sourced, Ethiopian brew. So ignorant that I’d be putting it in a plastic cup. But next time, and at least 16 after that, I’ll definitely be using my KeepCup.

David Burrows is a freelance writer at Envirobuzz Editorial and the editor of Footprint magazine