Go for the reusable, not the disposable, when it comes to coffee cups et al.

Use of disposable cups could be halved within three years

A coffee cup in the woods.Click to enlarge
Disposable cups used for coffee and other hot beverages end up too often in the environment.
Source: Weixx / fotolia.com

German consumers use 2.8 billion disposable cups per year for hot beverages, an equivalent of 23 cups per person. The cups and lids often end up in the environment shortly after use because they are discarded carelessly or fall out of overflowing waste bins. A recent study by the German Environment Agency (UBA) proposes introducing reusable cup systems and setting up a littering fund to finance the clean-up of litter in the environment. President Maria Krautzberger of the German Environment Agency says: "Every disposable cup used is one too many. Disposable cups are a waste of resources and pollute our environment. Reusable cups are the right choice." 60 percent of all disposable cups are plastic-coated, and the remaining 40 percent are all-plastic. Add to this number about 1.3 billion plastic cup lids. Plastic-coated paper cups alone – the classic 'to go' cups – fill up the volume of eight million typical urban waste bins every year.

The study proposes that economic actors in the "to go" sector use reusable cups as a rule rather than on demand only. In addition, coffee and other hot beverages sold in reusable cups should be less expensive than disposable cups. The report also says that cup lids account for a high share of energy and pollution. This is why it would make sense to not supply disposable lids with reusable cups. The Blue Angel award criteria for reusable cup systems should be applied to reusable cups. The money in the littering fund should be used to clean up public areas and for information campaigns. Any party introducing disposable cups onto the market must pay into the fund.

According to the study, these measures could reduce the consumption of disposable cups by 50 percent within three years. Should such ambitious goals not be agreed with players in the market, steps should be taken to implement legally binding requirements. 

Environmental footprint of disposable vs returnable cups: All disposable cups either have a plastic coating or their lids are made entirely of plastic. If cups are discarded into nature instead of the waste bin, more and more plastic will also end up in soil and water. The environment also suffers because the production of cups consumes energy and raw materials. Reusable cups – whether dispensed by the shop or brought by the customer – have a lighter footprint when in fact reused, both in terms of life cycle assessment performance and the generation of waste. The more often a cup is used the better its environmental footprint. The study calculates that a circulation rate of 10 or more would pay off. It is not necessarily the material of the cup that is decisive in the assessment of their environmental impact but how they are washed. For optimal environmental balance reusable cups should be sold without disposable lids and washed using green electricity.

Disposable cups as waste: Disposable cups are among the ten disposable plastic products most often found as waste on Europe's beaches and in its seas. This is a clear sign for high levels of input to the environment, which is problematic beyond just seas and oceans. The waste management sector itself has problems coping with the amounts of paper cup waste in the "to go" market segment, which amounts to up to 15 percent of the volume of waste bins in the urban environment. That is a volume of 400,000 m³ per year and equivalent to the contents of nearly eight million 50-litre waste bins.

Printer-friendly version
 Coffee-to-go  coffee  disposable cups  to go