June 22, 2021

Why is recycling single-use coffee cups so difficult?


Disposable coffee cups are a staple in coffee shops around the world. They are affordable for businesses and convenient for customers. But with only 1 in every 400 coffee cups being recycled in major consuming countries like the UK, they pose a significant problem for increasing levels of waste. They are also difficult to recycle for a number of reasons.

To combat this, more and more cafés are offering discounts to customers who bring their own reusable mugs. But in spite of this, research indicates minimal participation from consumers – figures which have only been made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic.

So, why is it so difficult to recycle single-use cups? And why aren’t more people switching to reusable alternatives? To learn more, I spoke to industry experts about these problems – and what can be done to solve them.

You might also like our article on how to create a coffee shop food menu that minimises waste

Takeaway cups and waste

Many takeaway coffee cups are made from petroleum-based plastics like styrofoam and polypropylene, or polyethylene-coated paper. These materials retain heat well and prevent leakage, making them a perfect choice.

However, single-use cups are resource-intensive to produce. It’s estimated that 20 million trees and 12 billion gallons of water are used to make paper cups every year in the US alone. And while plastic cups use fewer natural resources to produce, they are considerably more energy-intensive to manufacture.

Both styrofoam and polypropylene are affordable and readily available to manufacturers, but they are difficult to recycle. Paper cups also pose a challenge, as they need to be treated for the plastic lining to be removed. 

Dr. Dagny Tucker is the founder of Vessel, a US reusable mug company. She tells me that Vessel launched a reusable cup scheme for cafés, where customers scan QR codes on Vessel cups and return used cups within 5 days to kiosks or participating coffee shops.

Dagny says that the lack of access to recycling facilities and high recycling costs make it difficult to minimise the waste associated with single-use cups. She says: “Only 9% of all the plastic ever produced has been recycled, and most recyclable plastic is downcycled after roughly 400 uses.

“Recyclers worldwide are struggling to find end markets for the plastics that travel through their material reclamation facilities. The price of virgin plastics is also lower than the cost of recycling plastics, which isn’t economically attractive to producers.”

Thanks to a broader lack of recycling incentives, an estimated half a trillion single-use coffee cups are sent to landfill every year around the world. Once disposed of, styrofoam and polypropylene cups take up to 450 years to degrade, while plastic-lined cups will take around 30 years to decompose. When these materials break down, they release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, further contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. 

Plastics also break down into microplastics, which spread across the planet and contaminate our air, soil, and water – harming wildlife and the environment. And while their impact on human health is relatively unknown, scientists estimate we each consume 100,000 microplastic particles every year.

Biodegradable and compostable cups

Coffee cups can be made from biodegradable and compostable materials, which break down into their base components over time. However, there are some notable differences between the two terms. Compostable cups are biodegradable, but a biodegradable material is not always compostable.

Materials that are biodegradable can break down into their composite elements over time. In contrast, compostable matter decomposes over a set timeframe into organic compounds, known as “humus”. This then provides nutrients to the surrounding environment.

Furthermore, these systems only work when consumers are informed that cups are compostable or biodegradable, and have access to appropriate disposal facilities.

“Some coffee cups are compostable, but few cities have public composting services or a composting culture,” Dagny tells me.

In Europe, most municipal waste ends up in landfills (24%) or is incinerated (27%). Less than half is recycled (31%) and even less composted (17%). When a consumer doesn’t or can’t compost their cups, they end up in a landfill.”

In the appropriate conditions, industrial-compostable materials are required under EU law to break down within 12 weeks, and completely biodegrade after six months. However, when exposure to oxygen, heat, and airflow is minimised, compostable and biodegradable cups can remain intact for years.

Unlike industrial compost heaps, landfill sites are not controlled or regularly aerated. As a result, microorganisms break down compostable and biodegradable matter anaerobically (without oxygen). When this occurs, the materials release methane, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

Recent recycling challenges

Sumit Lodhia is a Professor of Accounting at the University of South Australia in Adelaide. “Covid-19 has exacerbated the coffee waste problem,” he explains. “Given the emphasis on takeaway, there’s been an influx of takeaway cups and a decline in the use of reusable cups.”

Over the past 12 months or so, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed how the global hospitality industry has been able to accept reusable cups. To comply with previously established Covid-safe measures, many cafés exclusively used takeaway cups and utensils, and would refuse to accept customers’ reusable cups. 

Abigail Forsyth is a co-founder and the Managing Director of KeepCup, a reusable coffee cup company based in Melbourne, Australia. She says: “Single-use cups are incorrectly equated to hygiene, and a surge in plastic waste has been reported as an outcome of the pandemic. In line with this setback, convenience culture has crept back into everyday life.”

However, waste production levels have been steadily rising since well before the pandemic. Dagny notes that the cessation of recyclable exports to China in 2018 has been a key part of this.

In 1992, China started to import and process recyclable waste from around the world, reaching a level of around 45% over a 26-year period. However, in 2018, the Chinese government banned imports on recyclable waste in order to invest more in the country’s recycling infrastructure.

Dagny says: “China has closed its doors to recyclables coming from the US and Europe. Before the ban, 95% of the plastics collected for recycling in the European Union, and 70% in the US were sold and shipped to China.”

When the ban came into play, national recycling facilities in the EU and US became overwhelmed, and companies manufacturing single-use plastics failed to cut down on production to meet their targets.

“When they stopped buying imported recyclables, recyclers turned towards domestic markets, creating a massive oversupply and subsequent price drop,” Dagny says. “This is why recyclers are streamlining and limiting the number and kinds of materials they accept.”

Reusable cups: The challenges

To reduce the demand for takeaway cups in an effort to fight waste, we need to understand why consumers prefer them over reusable mugs.

Convenience is a key factor. “Reusable cups are easily forgotten at home or in the car, for instance,” Dagny says. 

While customers can have good intentions about the amount of waste they produce, visiting a coffee shop can often be an impromptu experience – meaning consumers resort to single-use cups.

When drinking coffee on-the-go, takeaway cups are also a way to save time and effort. They can be easily disposed of, while reusable cups have to be kept and washed at home. 

In 2019, Sumit and his research team interviewed consumers, café owners, and policymakers in South Australia on the topic. Unfortunately, they found that discounts don’t provide enough of an incentive to encourage people to switch to reusable cups.

“The discounts didn’t encourage recycling,” he explains. “A few cents off wasn’t worth the effort and didn’t make a difference to customers. Most wouldn’t even take up the discount.”

So what about swaying it the other way, and charging a premium for customers who want to switch to reusable cups?

Well, in the UK, Starbucks trialled a £0.05 charge for customers ordering drinks in paper cups in an effort to switch people to reusable alternatives. And while 48% of customers claimed they would bring their own mugs to avoid the charge, uptake for these schemes has only been around 1% to 2% across coffee shops in the country.

Encouraging consumers to use reusable cups

In order to permanently encourage the switch away from disposable cups, change is needed.

Large-scale infrastructure projects to recycle single-use coffee cups will require years of government support and investment, meaning it’s not an immediate option. However, across the world, businesses are increasingly offering circular waste management solutions.

“Recognising that single-use plastics are a problem, several reusable cup companies have entered the market,” Dagny says. “More money is being allocated to raise awareness of single-use plastics as their dangers become better understood.”

Vessel uses stainless steel to make its reusable mugs. Customers can request Vessel mugs at participating cafés at a similar rate to disposable cups, and they can be easily returned to one of many convenient drop-off locations.

Dagny explains that this circular system offers cafés and customers a better experience. Consumers don’t need to remember to carry or wash their own reusable mugs, and cafés pay a similar price to what they would for takeaway cups.

For Abigail, it’s more about influencing other people.

“One of the biggest motivators to avoiding single-use cups is knowing others are doing the same,” Abigail says. “Lining up in the coffee queue with one has the immediate impact of diverting a single-use cup from landfill and signals intent to those around.”

This social change is necessary in creating a circular system. The more people adopt reusable mugs, the more normal and acceptable it will become. 

“The social norms around takeaway cups make it a cultural issue,” Sumit adds. “Our study suggests that it will take more than efforts from cafés to bring about behavioural change. We need a cultural shift to encourage recycling among coffee drinkers.”

In the current coffee sector landscape, it seems unlikely that the number of single use cups going to landfill will decrease until improved recycling frameworks are developed. And while coffee shops and consumers have limited control over establishing these infrastructures, demanding them from governing bodies is important.

In the meantime, coffee shops can control how they serve coffee and customers can be more mindful of the vessels they use. By investing in more circular systems and adopting reusable mug schemes, millions of takeaway cups can be kept out of landfill sites and from polluting the planet.

Enjoyed this? Then try our article on how we can minimise waste in the coffee industry.

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