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Why disposable coffee cups are a problem

If you like to grab yourself a coffee on the go, you’ll probably have heard about the campaign against so-called disposable cups.

2.5 billion coffee cups are used and thrown away each year in the UK and this is a very big problem. Firstly, they represent an awful lot of energy and resources being used to make something that’s used once then thrown away. Secondly, they are very tricky to recycle, and often end up in landfill littering our environment.


By Supuhstar “A paper coffee cup with a cardboard heat sleeve around it, and a hot stopper in the lid” via Creative Commons

The recycling problem

Most people, when asked, would probably say that those cups consist of a plastic lid and a cardboard cup. Since both plastic and cardboard can be recycled, what’s the problem?

In actual fact the cup part is made from a cardboard outer part with a very fine plastic lining which is what helps keep the liquid from leaking through.

This makes recycling them difficult, as the plastic needs to be separated from the cardboard before either can be recycled. There are only 2 places in the UK that can recycle these cups, so most of them just end up in landfill. Less than 1 in 400 (or about 0.25%) are recycled.

One of the places that can recycle them is James Cropper, a paper recycling company based in the Lake District. This company has developed a special way to recycle the cups, turning thousands of them into fine paper which can be reused in many ways.

But 2 factories can’t deal with the millions of cups we use and throw away every year, and it’s such wasteful behaviour anyway.

By Fayenatic london “Photograph of an insulated paper cup, with cutaway to show its construction.” via Creative Commons

The ‘Latté levy’ other ideas

Another way to deal with this problem is to try and change people’s behaviour. If people get used to bringing their own cups instead of relying on disposable ones, then that will mean less waste.

Lots of coffee shops and companies are already trying this, offering a discount on the price of a hot drink to customers who bring a cup with them. This is a great ideas!

Another option being suggested by MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee is what’s become known as the ‘latté levy’; charge people who want to use a disposable coffee cup 25p per cup.

One acts as a reward to those who bring a cup, the other acts as a deterrent to those who don’t bring one, a little like charging 5p for plastic bags.

Which do you think would work better? Which one would be more likely to persuade you?

Keep Cup make reusable cups for hot drinks in a range of colours and sizes

What are the alternatives?

What’s better for everyone is of course to get used to bringing your own cup with you, a little like we are all getting used to carrying reusable carrier bags now. It means less waste, less resources used for something we are just going to throw away, and it’s much better for the environment.

There are also so many companies making lovely reusable cups that it’s really not a problem finding one, and cafes are used not to rinsing and refilling them too.

Most of the big coffee shop chains will have their own cups, usually quite reasonably priced, or you could get one from a company like KeepCup who offer ones in a range of colours, designed in sizes that work with the machines coffee shops and baristas are used to working with.

Useful resources

If you’d like to know more, here are a few useful resources and websites we’ve found that will help.


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