How Do You Solve a Problem Like Disposable Coffee Cups?

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Disposable Coffee Cups?
Starbucks alone uses 6 billion disposable coffee cups each year. via Unsplash

The world is drowning in disposable coffee cups. They’re in seemingly every cafe, convenience store, hotel lobby, highway rest stop, and auto repair waiting room. They’re in many of our hands every morning, used for maybe 10 minutes before being discarded.

Despite their ubiquity, we’ve been trained not to think about them, taught to expect convenience and to ignore the consequences. Collectively, we go through billions of disposable coffee cups every year. And, thanks to a protracted propaganda campaign from oil companies and plastic manufacturers, most people believe that simply throwing their cups in the recycling bin is enough. 

Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case. Instead, most pile up in landfills, clog drains, litter roads, and choke waterways. Once there, they take centuries, if not millennia, to decompose, leaching toxins into the earth as they do so.

It’s clear that our throwaway approach to coffee is not sustainable. And while there are projects looking to reinvent the single-use cup (I especially like the 3D-printed clay cups from GaeaStar), they’re not really practical at the scale needed.

The simplest solution seems obvious—just stop using disposable coffee cups—but it’s unlikely to happen. We’re too used to the convenience of having our coffee to go, and one can envisage the culture war nonsense that would ensue from a blanket ban. And of course, for most coffee shops, suddenly removing takeaway cups comes with a host of complications.

In the face of this quagmire, some are pushing compostable cups as a solution, although these have their own issues. Others promote reusable cup discounts, or swap schemes that let customers take a cup away and bring it back for the deposit. Others still have lobbied for a takeaway cup tax, while a few very brave business owners have gone a step further and banned disposables altogether.

But for a problem of this magnitude, clever new products or small-scale initiatives are unlikely to have much impact on their own. We can’t arrive at a solution without systemic behavioural changes and adjustments to our expectations. Unfortunately, that’s something few consumers want to hear.

What’s in a Cup

We produce a lot of disposable cups. One widely cited statistic says that 500 billion are manufactured each year (although when I tried to find the source for this figure, I didn’t get further than a 2012 press release by the reusable cup manufacturer KeepCup). Still, we know that Starbucks alone goes through 6 billion each year, while the U.K. used 2.5 billion in 2011 (it’s closer to 3.75 billion now).

These days, most disposable coffee cups are made from paper lined with a thin layer of plastic. Sometimes that lining is regular fossil plastic; sometimes it’s bioplastic, like corn- or sugarcane-derived polylactic acid (PLA). Technically, these cups are either recyclable or industrially compostable, but separating the paper and the plastic liner is difficult and expensive. Just 0.25% of all takeaway coffee cups in the U.K. are recycled each year, while suitable facilities to compost “biodegradable” cups are vanishingly rare

Instead, the vast majority of single-use cups end up in landfills, or worse, in rivers and streams, and eventually the ocean. Once there, they continue to release chemicals into the environment for centuries (that’s true for the supposedly degradable bioplastic, too.)  And when they do finally break down, they become microplastics, which make their way into the soil, the water, and eventually our bodies.

Researchers have also found that, when filled with hot water, plastic-lined paper cups leach chemicals and microplastics into the beverage itself. One study estimates that a single cup of takeaway coffee each week could cause you to ingest 90,000 microplastic particles every year. 

As well as being bad for the environment, disposable coffee cups are clearly bad for us. At the same time, concerns about pollution and climate change are increasing among the general public, so you would think that this might have an effect on disposable cup usage.

But no—in fact, the disposable cup industry is projected to grow massively over the next decade. Consumers, meanwhile, are either unaware of the problems surrounding their disposal or simply don’t care enough. If the coffee industry wants people to use fewer disposable cups, then trying to change these behaviours will be key.

Discount vs. Surcharge

In 2017, the U.K.’s House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee launched an inquiry into the impact of disposable packaging. A year later, it published a series of recommendations, including the introduction of a 25p (32¢) tax on disposable coffee cups and a possible total ban if recycling efforts aren’t successful.

Versions of the so-called “latte levy” (the U.K. loves its clever little alliterative phrases) have also been proposed in Scotland and Ireland, while various U.S. municipalities have introduced their own surcharges on takeaway cups. In some of these locations, the money raised is then used to expand recycling efforts, or tackle local pollution and water quality issues.

In 2019, the city of Berkeley, California, introduced a 25¢ surcharge on all takeaway cups in order to tackle the 40 million its residents threw out each year. “By showing people that there is a cost to the throwaway foodware, studies have shown that we can incentivize people effectively to bring their own”, city councillor Sophie Hahn, who authored the legislation, said at the time.

(Such moves haven’t always worked—I wrote about Blue Bottle Coffee’s abortive zero-waste pledge last year. The Nestlé-owned company garnered much favourable press for its announcement that it would phase out all single-use items across its U.S. cafes. But a few years later, it was back to giving out disposable cups to its customers.)

Researchers have estimated that the proposed U.K. latte levy could reduce the country’s use of disposable coffee cups by up to 300 million every year. Individual companies have also experimented with surcharges. Starbucks trialled its own “latte levy” in 2018, adding a 5p fee on takeaway cups in select London stores. This had an immediate impact, with reusable cup usage increasing 150% in the first six weeks. The company later expanded the charge to all U.K. locations.

“People are far more sensitive to losses than to gains when making decisions”, Professor Wouter Poortinga from Cardiff University told the BBC. “So if we really want to change a customer’s behaviour then a charge on a disposable cup is more likely to be effective”.

Others have come to different conclusions. Dr. Jennifer Ferreira studied consumer behaviour as part of a wider research project into coffee shop sustainability at Coventry University, and found that while consumers responded positively to discounts, bans and surcharges were less popular. 

“From the people I spoke to, a discount for using a reusable cup was the most preferred method,” she tells me. “People felt they were benefiting financially while also helping the planet”. Disposable cup bans were frustrating, Ferreira says, while “additional charges annoyed people too, but if they really like the product they would put up with it”. 

Whatever the approach, researchers agree: The psychology around consumer interactions with coffee cups is complicated, and so is changing behaviour on a large scale. 

Annoyed, Frustrated, Enthusiastic

In researching consumer behaviour around disposable coffee cups, Dr. Ferreira found that many people didn’t realise that, even if they put their coffee cups in the recycling, they would still likely end up in landfill. “A lot of people assume recycling means they are being more sustainable, but don’t really think about what that means”, she says. Moreover, consumers considered it more convenient to just throw away a disposable cup, Dr. Ferreira found, because a reusable cup needs to be carried around and washed after every use. 

One solution to this problem is the cup-swap scheme, in which customers pay a deposit for a reusable cup that they can then return to the same cafe or to other participating coffee shops. Some coffee businesses have already implemented such programs, including the London-based specialty trailblazer Monmouth Coffee, which launched a cup deposit initiative in March 2022.

“The scheme has been a really interesting journey”, says Monmouth’s Finn Andres. Customers either bring their own reusable cup or pay a £5 deposit for one that Monmouth provides, a deposit that is refundable upon return. Although the company doesn’t have exact figures, Andres estimates that it has saved hundreds of thousands of disposable cups from landfills since launching.

Customer feedback has also been surprisingly supportive. “Overall the reception has generally been positive—more so than we’d expected”, Andres says. “We got loads of lovely messages of support from people who were enthusiastic about the scheme, and even some funny ones along the lines of, ‘This is going to be a bit annoying but I think it’s really good you’re doing it’”.

Cup-swap projects have popped up elsewhere. Berkeley has a free city-wide program in addition to its surcharge, while the reusable-cup-maker Huskee launched HuskeeSwap in 2019 and now has more than 1,000 partner locations across the world. Korea, meanwhile, planned to launch a nationwide deposit scheme for disposable cups by 2025; although it was broadly popular, the government eventually abandoned the initiative.

Andres admits that there have been logistical challenges to Monmouth’s program, from the region’s hard water leaving unappealing residue on cups to the energy and water used in washing each cup. (Life-cycle analyses have found that single-use cups can have a lower environmental impact than reusables due to the materials needed to create and energy needed to clean the latter, although LCAs in general are not without controversy.)

There has also been a lot more pressure on staff to manage stock as well as repeatedly explain the concept to customers. “When we’ve discussed things with other businesses who are looking for advice about a scheme of their own, one of the things I always take great pains to highlight is that it is quite hard on the staff, so it’s very important to support them and be sensitive to their needs and feedback”, Andres says.

This impact is something that Sam Roberts, CEO and co-owner of the English cafe chain Boston Tea Party, also recognises. In 2018, the company became the first U.K. coffee chain to completely ban disposable cups, and it needed to ensure that staff were ready to inform customers and hear complaints. “Training our team to find the right ‘pitch’ or narrative to tell our customers without appearing ‘preachy’ when they came in for a [takeaway] coffee” was a big challenge, Roberts admits.

While the company lost money—there were lots of breathless news stories over sales falling £250,000 a year after the ban came into place—Roberts says it has also gained new customers and energised its core base. However, “The biggest and most important impact was our teams buying into our purpose”, Roberts says. “Actions speak louder than words. It magnetised our employer brand and really helped with culture and ultimately team retention”.

Has it worked? Boston Tea Party has saved one million cups from going to landfills, Roberts says, and while the company supports disposable cup levies, “ultimately, if you want to deal with the problem once and for all, then a ban is the way to go”.

Government Intervention?

In the end, it all comes down to habits. We’re used to blithely consuming what we want, when we want, without thinking about the downstream effects. And we’re unlikely to change until outside pressure forces us to. Individual behaviours are important, but as with the broader climate crisis, we can’t fix systemic problems on a personal level.

It takes real structural thinking to make a big impact. Looking to plastic bags might offer some lessons for dealing with coffee cup waste. The plastic bag levy in England—a small fee introduced in 2015 and charged at checkout for single-use plastic bags—saw a 98% drop in use after eight years, while a similar surcharge in Hong Kong resulted in a 60% drop. “The success of the plastic bag charge shows that when the government takes real action it gets results and the public gets on board”, Nina Schrank from Greenpeace told the Guardian.

Of course, as Dr. Ferreira notes, there’s a difference between carrying a cloth tote bag in your pocket and a used coffee cup, and many people will be annoyed by the inconvenience. But maybe we could all stand to stomach a bit more inconvenience when our lives and ecosystems are at stake—and it might take regulation to get us there.