August 22, 2022

How can coffee shops reduce single-use cup waste? 


Single-use cups are used by coffee shops all around the world. However, with consumers becoming increasingly conscious of their environmental impact, it’s clear that more and more businesses need to adapt and move away from disposable cups.

According to Clean Water Action, the US alone uses some 130 billion disposable cups per year – which includes coffee cups. As they’re difficult to recycle, we can also conclude most of these cups end up going to landfill, where they contribute to a growing waste problem.

However, in response to the issue of single-use cup waste, some coffee shops now offer discounts for customers who bring their own reusable cups, as well as other swap schemes. But how do these initiatives work? And what are the benefits – for both coffee shops and consumers?

To find out, I spoke with four coffee professionals involved with the HuskeeSwap reusable cup programme. Read on to learn more about what they had to tell me.

You may also like our article on why recycling single-use coffee cups is so difficult.

a pile of trash in a rubbish bin including coffee cups

Why are single-use cups a problem?

There are a number of sustainability issues across the entire coffee supply chain, but none have quite received the same level of attention as single-use cups.

Many disposable cups are manufactured using petroleum-based plastics like Styrofoam, polypropylene, or polyethylene-coated paper. While these materials are useful for retaining heat and preventing leaks, they are energy-intensive to manufacture and they cannot be recycled easily.

It’s estimated that it takes around 20 million trees and 12 billion gallons of water to produce 58 billion paper cups every year. Furthermore, a study carried out by product-testing company Intertek found that the carbon footprint of producing, using, and disposing of just one single-use cup is the equivalent of more than 60g of carbon dioxide.

When considering the scale of disposable cup use around the world, the emissions are concerning to say the least. 

Furthermore, even when they are disposed of, single-use cups continue to be a major environmental problem. Experts believe that single-use coffee cups can take up to 30 years to decompose because of the low levels of oxygen, heat, and airflow in landfill conditions. 

In response to these concerns, we’ve seen a number of countries start to implement single-use plastic bans. In 2019, the leaders of 170 countries pledged to “significantly reduce” their use of plastics (including disposable coffee cups) by 2030.

In the three years since, the United Nations has also drafted its End plastic pollution mandate which could see global leaders push for an even further reduction of single-use plastics and cups.

a sanitation worker holding empty plastic coffee cups

Can you recycle single-use cups?

As more and more countries implement bans on single-use cups and plastics, we’ve seen the number of biodegradable, compostable, and recyclable alternatives increase.

However, these single-use cup alternatives also come with their own issues, especially when it comes to disposal.

A 2017 report from the UK’s House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee found that only one in 400 single-use cups are properly recycled in the UK. This means the vast majority of them go straight to landfill, irrespective of whether or not they are recyclable.

Many single-use cups are made of styrofoam, polyethylene, or polypropylene, which are all either difficult or impossible to recycle. However, even paper-based coffee cups are challenging to recycle, as most are lined with plastic to prevent leaks. Many recycling facilities around the world don’t have the proper infrastructure to separate the materials, which generally means that the cups go to landfill instead.

Furthermore, while biodegradable and compostable single-use cups are designed to break down faster, this largely depends on how they are disposed of. 

In the appropriate conditions, industrial-compostable materials are required under EU law to completely biodegrade within six months. However, in anaerobic landfill environments, compostable and biodegradable cups can remain intact for years.

Reusable cup swap schemes

With single-use cup bans becoming more common around the world, many coffee shops are looking for ways to reduce their usage. One of the most prominent solutions is reusable cup swap initiatives, which many large chains are becoming increasingly involved with.

For instance, Starbucks is trialling its Borrow A Cup scheme in its Seattle, Japan, Singapore, and London stores. The company has also managed to eliminate all disposable cup usage at 16 of its stores in South Korea.

Michael McFarlane is the Head of Sales and Marketing at Huskee, which designs and manufactures reusable cups with an associate swap programme.

“Coffee cup swap schemes offer a solution to coffee shops,” he tells me. “They can continue to serve takeaway coffees, even with bans and levies for single-use cups coming into effect worldwide.”

Alongside larger brands’ schemes, there has also been a recent uptake in reusable cup swap programmes in many independent coffee shops. One example is the HuskeeSwap scheme, which is active in more than 1,000 cafés across 22 countries. 

To participate, a customer simply purchases a HuskeeCup (if they don’t already have one) and hands it to the barista to prepare their coffee at a participating coffee shop. Once they have finished their beverage, they return the cup to the barista the next time they order, who then swaps it for a prewashed cup filled with their coffee order, saving the customer time on washing their cup.

Michael explains more about how this system works.

“Coffee shops hold a ‘float’ of pre-washed HuskeeCups, so they swap a cup out when a customer orders,” he says. “All of the cups that are swapped in are then washed to replenish the float.”

Cyrus Hernstadt is the Director of Communications at Think Coffee in New York, US. The roaster is also a member of the HuskeeSwap scheme.

“Our staff wash and sanitise the used cups and then place them back into the float, ready for the next customer,” he tells me. “This saves customers from cleaning their reusable cup at home, as well as diverting a single-use cup from going to landfill.”

Although many customers do have their own reusable cups, visits to coffee shops are often spontaneous – meaning it’s easy for consumers to forget to bring them. What’s more, remembering to clean the cup can be a deterrent for some customers.

Jay Yu is the head barista of Campus Life, which operates multiple cafés at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He tells me that since the coffee shop joined the HuskeeSwap scheme, 75% of its beverages have been prepared in reusable cups.

“As a customer, all you need to do is make a one-time purchase of a Huskee cup and lid,” he says. “Then you can bring it to any coffee shop participating in the HuskeeSwap scheme.

“As a coffee shop owner or barista, you just need to collect the used cup and swap it for a clean one,” he adds.

Misconceptions about Covid-19

Prior to the pandemic, reusable cup swap programmes were becoming more and more popular. Unfortunately, as a result of Covid-19, many coffee shops had to stop accepting reusable cups because of concerns about spreading the virus.

However, over the past two years, global health officials have confirmed that Covid-19 cannot reasonably be transmitted through reusable foodware items, such as coffee cups. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that no cases of Covid-19 transmitted through surface contact have been recorded.

With the correct cleaning and sanitation procedures in place, coffee cup swap schemes like HuskeeSwap can continue to work towards reducing single-use cup waste.

How can reusable cup initiatives benefit coffee shops?

Julia Auchey is the Head of Brand for 92 Degrees, a UK roaster which participates in the HuskeeSwap programme.

“Since joining the HuskeeSwap scheme, there has been a lot of interest in the cups themselves, which has naturally raised awareness about disposable cup waste,” she says. “Many guests ask us questions about what the cups are made from and why we use them.

“This small change across our coffee shops is another step towards achieving some of our company’s sustainability goals,” she adds.

Besides reducing single-use cup waste, there are several benefits to implementing a reusable cup swap scheme in coffee shops.

For baristas, reusable cup swap schemes can help to improve workflow. Instead of having to rinse out a customer’s own reusable cup, they can simply swap it for one of the coffee shop’s prewashed reusable cups.

As well as being more convenient for baristas, it’s also more hygienic.

HuskeeSwap helps to reduce the risk of cross-contamination because the cups are washed onsite to higher food safety standards, rather than being brought into the coffee shop from public transport, a car, or a bag,” Michael explains.

Furthermore, reusable cup swap initiatives are more convenient and accessible for many consumers – especially if they have forgotten to bring their own reusable cup and don’t want to use a disposable cup. In the case of HuskeeSwap, Cyrus explains that cups can be borrowed or stored through the app.

“The HuskeeSwap app lets customers drop off their used cups for an e-credit [at a designated drop-off point], which saves them the hassle of carrying it around,” Cyrus explains. “It’s such a simple thing, but it removes one of the barriers for [more people opting into] reusable cup swap schemes.”

dried cascara coffee tea

Reducing waste across the supply chain

Single-use cup waste is largely an issue for coffee shops and consumers, but creating a circular economy across the coffee industry is also important.

“Around 1.35 million tonnes of husk waste is generated globally every year,” Jay says. Husk is a by-product of the coffee cherry, and includes the dried skin and chaff.

The entire HuskeeCup range is made from a unique ecocomposite polymer, which features discarded coffee husk.

“Turning waste into other useful products is sure to inspire more coffee producers, roasters, and consumers to also be more sustainable,” Jay adds.

Julia agrees, saying: “Initiatives like HuskeeSwap have the ability to increase sustainability further along the supply chain – especially as the pandemic increased our usage of single-use plastics and cups.” 

Michael tells me about the HuskeeLoop programme, which aims to ensure over 90% of everything Huskee makes is collected and repurposed into new products, and that no cups go to landfill. 

“The cups can be recycled into new products through our closed-loop recycling scheme, with our first product from this range being released later this year,” he says, noting that this helps to reduce waste even further. 

woman holding a tray and two take away coffees

With more and more coffee shops adopting reusable cup schemes, we can remain hopeful that the usage of single-use cups in the coffee industry will steadily begin to decline over the coming years.

“The real power of a reusable cup swap scheme is that it encourages people to participate in it,” Cyrus concludes. “By doing so, it more widely pushes for a more sustainable coffee sector.”

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how to create a coffee shop food menu that minimises waste.

Photo credits: Huskee

Perfect Daily Grind

Please note: Huskee is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.

Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our newsletter!