A couple of years ago we did a day trip and invited a friend, she is interested in sustainability so we were discussing habits and my husband was telling the story about his colleague who used to throw take away coffee cups to the recycling bin all the time. Our friend immediately asked: “What’s wrong with that?” He broke the news to her: “Many coffee cups can’t be recycled!” As a coffee lover who drinks take-away coffees often at work she was shocked, she couldn’t believe it.
Most people think that take away coffee cups are eco-friendly because they are made of cardboard, but there is a secret material hidden inside: plastic!
For this reason and in preparation for Plastic Free July, today’s post is dedicated to take-away coffee cups.
What’s the issue
Coffee cups are usually made of cardboard but they have a thin layer of plastic (polyethylene) on the inside to make them waterproof and this is the tricky bit that most people are not aware of – once my husband put one in one of the compost bins as an experiment and after a while all the paper disappeared but the plastic lining remained intact.
This plastic lining makes the recycling process complicated. If they can be recycled or not, it depends on the facilities where they are sent, unfortunately there is not a straightforward answer. However, if the facility can’t handle coffee cups and you throw them in the recycling bin these cups usually contaminate the lot.
There are “greener” alternatives that use plant-based material to line the cup instead of plastic, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they will break down in landfill. Most need to be sent to an industrial compost facility where they will naturally biodegrade under the right conditions. Again not a real solution.
According to ABC news “It is estimated Australians use 1 billion disposable coffee cups each year”.
Let’s do the maths, if I order take-away coffee 6 times per week, in a year I’d be using 312 disposable coffee-cups. At my work place, I can’t throw coffee cups in the recycling bin because they can’t recycle them. This means that in 3 years, I would be responsible for sending to landfill 936 items. Now multiply that for millions of people doing the same around the world!
Last year here in Australia, ABC program War on Waste exposed this issue and it created a massive movement, people started buying reusable take-away coffee cups, coffee shops started putting up signs to encourage customers to bring their own cup. Out of the sudden reusing coffee cups was a thing!
I’d love to say that now I see few people drinking coffee in disposable cups, but that’s not the case. I work in Melbourne CBD and all the time I see people buying them. Even at my office, we keep receiving emails highlighting the fact that the company handling recycling can’t take coffee cups and people keep using them regardless.
Once I read an article saying these cups were a symbol of status in the corporate environment. In our current culture, I can honestly believe it (for some people at least).
The best way to tackle this problem is using reusable take-away coffee cups. These days many coffee shops are more than happy to serve your coffee in your reusable cup. It is quite normal and even cool these days (on this one you won’t be the weirdo taking your own cup)
At the beginning the challenge as usual is forming the new habit. It is a matter of finding a trigger in your daily routine. I am not a coffee drinker so I can’t really write from personal experience, but writing from observation I notice that people at work leave their reusable cup at the office, so it is there, clean and ready to be used. They go downstairs, buy the coffee, drink it, wash the cup and leave it there. It seems to work for many of them.
If you are like my friend at the beginning of the story, she buys her coffee on her way to work, so she keeps her reusable cup in the car, she uses the cup during the day in the office and returns it back to the car for the next day.
If you don’t drive to work, then the place for the cup is a bag/backpack/purse that you carry with you on daily basis. If you have space restrictions, there are foldable options like this one.
These days there are many options if you need to get a reusable cup: plastic, ceramic, glass, silicone even bamboo.
I own a reusable cup which I keep in the car and I use it to buy hot drinks on the weekends when we are on the go. My cup is made of glass. The lids are usually made of plastic or silicone, but if you keep you cup for many years and give it a good use, it is a better option. According to PlanetArk website:
A study in Canada found that, in terms of the energy used in manufacturing, re-usable cups break-even with paper cups fairly quickly. It takes just 15 uses for a glass cup to break even, it’s 17 for a plastic re-usable and 39 for ceramic. So the more often you use your re-usable the lower the overall impact.
On a budget
If you are getting a new one and don’t want to spend a lot of money, you can try second-hand options. I have seen them in thrift stores and online in places like gumtree.com. There are also coffee places that lend you a mug as a reusable take away option, you could simply use one of the coffee cups you already own (if you don’t mind walking without the lid). Just find what works for you!
Using a reusable coffee cup can also save you money in the long term. Here in Australia, many business owners have registered their shops with Responsible Cafes. This initiative aims to reduce impact on the environment by encouraging individuals and businesses to buy/sell coffee in reusable cups.
They have a map where you can browse the businesses nearby that accept your reusable cup and give you a discount. The savings could go from $0.20 to $0.50. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but let’s do the maths using the example above:
Take-away coffee 6 times per week. Applying $0.20 discount that’s $62.4 per year. If the discount is $0.5 that’s $156 per year and $468 in 3 years. Not bad at all!
What to do with disposables?
If for any reason you end up with a regular disposable take-away cup (I know, life is full of unexpected situations!) please don’t send it to landfill. Here in Australia 7-Eleven has partnered with Simply cups to recycle coffee cups. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t buy your coffee there, just drop your coffee cup there.
Find your nearest location 7-Eleven Cup Rescue Program.
“It depends on us. We only have a short window of time for people to change attitudes and behaviours. ” – Dr Jane Goodall
I hope you have found some useful information in today’s post, if so could you please share it with your family, friends and colleagues? I write my blog to raise awareness about these issues and the only way to do that is by spreading the word together. Also please let me know in the comments below: Do you already own a reusable coffee cup? Are you planning to make a switch?
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Thanks for reading,