Single-Use Plastic Cups? Not my cup of tea

Coffee Cup Lifecycle 

Single-Use plastic coffee cups don’t go away when we throw them, their lifecycle extends far beyond their contact with us as consumersOnce that drink is finished, the majority go on to landfillwhere 2.5 billion cups end up every year in the UK – with many making a detour across the pavements first as over half a million are dropped as litter every day
Lined with waterproof plastic coating, polyethylene, which most UK recycling facilities can’t manage to separate from the paper cup, their design means just 0.25% of disposable cups are ever recycled. 

In a landfill site, our coffee cups decompose in about 30 years, but they’re still not truly going away. The degradation process breaks down plastic into microplastics (pieces smaller than 5mm) which gradually make their way into the oceans. There, these tiny shreds, the leftovers of our quick morning lattes, are mistaken as food by fish and other marine life 

And still, the plastics persevere. Studies into microplastic contamination in sea creatures, specifically in species commonly eaten by humans, found the most common plastic pollutant found in their bodies was polyethylene. Those cups we threw away are making their way back to us via cod and chips and moules frites (in a recent studyevery single sample of coastal UK mussels or supermarket-bought mussels tested contained microplastics). 

Stop Eating (Our) Rubbish 

While consumers are told that the way forward is to carry a reusable cup, real change must be driven by business. The consumer-aimed ‘reduce-reuse-recycle’ mantra can only go so far when operating within a system that prizes convenience so highly.  A radical shift in disposable cups usage from coffee shop conglomerates would cut a hefty chunk from the 7 million disposable cups binned each day, saving up to 30,000 tonnes of waste from landfill each year. 

Most coffee shop chains have been working on the ‘recycle and reuse’ aspects. Last year, Starbucks used money raised from their 5p levy on disposable cups to fund cup recycling initiatives through The Cup Fund, in partnership with environmental charity Hubbub. Hubbub expects the new recycling projects to save up to 35 million cups per year from landfill and divert them to waste management plants newly supplied with the equipment to manage cup recycling. As a reminder, the UK currently gets through 7 million cups per day 

Costa introduced in-store cup collection points in 2016, working with a partner to truck these cups to five recycling facilities across the UK. Costa reports that in the year to May 2019, 22.5 million cups were recycled in this way, accounting for just over three days’ worth of the UK’s single-use plastic cup usage. 

Pret a Manger’s attempts to promote reusable cups by doubling their discount for customers bringing in their own cup, from 25p to 50p per drink in 2018increased take up to the extent that by December 2019, Pret reported that almost 9% of all hot drink sales were in reusable cups. However, with almost 90% of Pret cups still bound for landfill and Starbucks and Costa recycling schemes only able to manage a crumb of the cupwaste pile, these schemes are falling short of radical.  

So what about the ‘reduce’ part of the mantra? While we carry our reusable cups, we also need our favourite coffee chains to play their part. Radical measures are required in the reduction of disposable cups usage in their stores, as we move away from single-use entirelyThe principle may be ‘the polluter pays’ but right now, we’re all paying.

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