Jane Bradley: Coffee craving comes at a high price

Billions of discarded takeaway cups are strangling the planet '“ it's time to take action on this waste, says Jane Bradley
Some coffee shop chains offer an incentive to use reusable cups but that on its own is not enough to stem the tide of pollution that thousands of discarded cups is causing.Some coffee shop chains offer an incentive to use reusable cups but that on its own is not enough to stem the tide of pollution that thousands of discarded cups is causing.
Some coffee shop chains offer an incentive to use reusable cups but that on its own is not enough to stem the tide of pollution that thousands of discarded cups is causing.

Coffee is not merely a drink, but a way of life.We have artisan coffee producers, entire coffee festivals, little independent coffee roasters who turn making a cup of joe into a fine art.

We are constantly being presented with new ways of brewing it: cold press, Aeropress, moka pot, Nespresso machine, French press – or even the good old fashioned perculator.

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I know people who seem to dedicate their entire Facebook feed to memes filled with pictures of animals and punn-y, (arguably un-funny) slogans about just how much they need their morning coffee.

TV hit show The Gilmore Girls is practically a love letter to caffeine, the number of times main characters Rory and Lorelai are pictured drinking it, buying it or even just talking about it.

In short, coffee is loved, it is fetishised, it is addictive.

It is also killing the environment.

In the UK alone, we use 2.5 billion single use coffee cups every year. That is not a typo. Two. Point. Five. Billion. That is 10,000 every two minutes, or 38 cups of throw away coffee vessels a year per person in Britain.

When you take into account that children are not coffee drinkers, then there are the weird individuals, like my husband, who despite being fully grown adults, refuse to touch the stuff, that’s quite a lot for the rest of us for whom a cup of the black stuff in the morning is an essential part of our day.

In the past couple of decades, coffee drinking has been transformed from a muddy cup of instant at the breakfast table to a must-have espresso-based coffee from a real coffee shop. And as that trend has grown, grabbing a cup at the bus or train stop to drink on the way into work has become the norm, while sitting and luxuriating over a real, washable cup is a less common occurrence, usually when there is time to meet a friend of colleague for a natter.

Of course, we don’t really think about the impact. I might have a cup or two of takeaway coffee a week – that would make me a fairly average user. Throwing away two cups into the bin does not seem like a significant thing to do at a personal level. But when you add it up, it is an enormous waste mountain that, in the main, cannot be recycled.

Coffee cups generally contain polyethylene, a material used to make them waterproof – which is recycleable in only two specialist centres in the UK – in Kendal and Halifax, both in England. While many of the major coffee firms claim that their cups are recycleable, very few actually are recycled, but not just because the process is difficult.

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The raison d’etre of a takeaway coffee cup is just that – that most people take it away, off the premises of the cafe from where it is bought, meaning that actually carrying out any recycling of single-use cups has been devolved to the consumer.

Coffee chain Pret-a-Manger actually removed the recyclable symbol from its cups two years ago so as not to mislead customers into believing most cups would be recyled.

In Scotland alone, annual disposable coffee cups waste is estimated at 3,000 tonnes, according to Zero Waste Scotland. That may be a small proportion of the total amount of waste produced north of the Border, but is still something which could – and should – easily be avoided. There are plenty of things that could be done to reduce this scourge – the first being the introduction of incentives for people to bring their own cup for a coffee on the go.

Earlier this year, researchers from Cardiff University said that a charge on disposable cups would increase the use of re-usable coffee cups by 3.4 per cent. The study, which trialled different measures in a range of cafes, found that the provision of free re-usable alternatives increased the use of reusable cups in one cafe from 5.1 per cent to 17.4 per cent.

It said that it believed overall use could be reduced by 12.5 per cent – or 200 million cups a year.

Some chains, like Starbucks, Pret and Costa, offer a small incentive – all give 25p off – for customers who bring their own coffee cup.

The US coffee retailer is also beginning a cup-only recycling bin in its stores, beginning with a small number of shops in central London, while Costa says it has rolled out such a facility to 2,000 of its outlets UK-wide and hopes to recycle 30 million cups a year.

A report out this week from the Marine Conservation Society found that 72 per cent of Scots would back a blanket charge – akin to the 5p plastic bag charge in shops – to encourage people to stop using single-use cups.

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The Scottish Government has said it is considering such a policy, off the back of its decision last month to bring in a deposit return scheme for bottles and cans – and the legislation brought in three years ago to tax people using a disposable carrier bag at the supermarket.

However, some people are always going to continue buying takeaway cups, just as some of us still sometimes need to use single-use carrier bags when doing the weekly shop. While it may be possible to bring a reuseable cup on your commute to work, in full knowledge that you will stop at a cafe en route, there will be times when a visit to a cafe for a takeaway latte will be spontaneous.

For that eventuality, recycling of cups needs to become far more widespread. In an age when we are able to do incredible things, technologically-speaking, it should and must be possible to roll out higher spec recycling facilities further across the UK.

However, for the most part, as consumers, we need to do our bit. Bring coffee from home in a flask. Or if you must get your daily Starbucks hit, take a reuseable cup. Or even better, take a break, sit down in a cafe and drink your coffee out of a washable mug. You deserve it – and the environment definitely does.