Reusable cups could be worse for environment than disposable ones, expert says

‘Unavoidable truth is it simply isn’t convenient for people on the run to remember their cup’

Phoebe Weston
Science Correspondent
Tuesday 13 August 2019 13:40 BST
Reusable cups worse for environment than disposable ones, expert says

Many of us give ourselves a pat on the back for remembering our reusable coffee cup.

However, the average person is not using their cup enough times before forgetting about it or throwing it away, according to Caroline Wood, a PhD researcher in food security at the University of Sheffield.

A reusable cup would need to be used between 20 and 100 times in order to have lower emissions than a disposable cup, she writes in a piece for The Conversation.

This is because more greenhouse emissions are released when making a durable product, and also because they need to be washed between uses.

Despite the surge in popularity for reusable cups they only make up five per cent of total sales.

“The unavoidable truth is that it simply isn’t convenient for people on the run to remember their cup, carry it around and wash it out between uses,” Ms Wood wrote.

Single-use coffee cups have become emblematic of our disposable modern culture.

Due to a thin plastic lining, paper recycling mills cannot process standard coffee cups, most of which are sent to landfill or incinerated.

There are only three recycling facilities in the UK which can process paper cups and hardly any of the 2.5 billion we throw away in the UK each year make it to one of these centres.

But even recycling cups comes with its own problems.

“It consumes a lot of energy, generates greenhouse gas emissions through transporting the cups to the correct facility and can be inefficient due to contamination from incorrect disposal,” said Ms Wood.

“Once you take into account all the environmental costs incurred throughout a coffee cup’s production, use and disposal, it may be a better option in some areas to take used cups to a local energy-for-waste plant rather than transporting them long distances to be recycled,” she said.

Compostable cups can seem like a good alternative but they need to be collected in special bins that are completely separate from non-compostable materials. The UK does not currently have the infrastructure to process this stream of waste, so they too often end up in landfill or being incinerated.

Nationally, our reliance on single-use coffee cups shows no signs of slowing down and Ms Wood says our concern about reusable cups could be taking people’s attention away from a much bigger problem.

“It is worth remembering that coffee cups still only make up around 0.7 per cent of UK packaging waste,” she said.

“And it’s estimated that packaging makes up less than 5 per cent of the total carbon footprint of a takeaway latte in a disposable cup (consider: the oil used in fertiliser on the plantation, the jet fuel used to transport the coffee beans, the energy used to heat the coffee, and so on).”

Ms Wood suggests people cut down on takeaway coffees and “rediscover the delight of dining in, with a proper china cup”.

Costa Coffee have pledged to recycle up to 500 million coffee cups a year by 2020

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