Why your takeaway cup of coffee is destroying the environment

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Moya Crockett
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How often do you buy a takeaway coffee? Once a week? Every day?

If you’re anything like most of the Stylist office, you’ll diligently chuck your paper cup in the recycling bin once you’ve finished your latte. But if you thought that meant you were doing your bit for the environment, we’ve got some bad news.

Takeaway coffee cups, it turns out, are not recyclable. And when you consider that the UK gets through 10,000 cardboard cups in just two minutes, our daily dose of caffeine starts to seem rather less appealing.

“Most consumers wrongly assume that paper cups are a ‘green’ choice,” says chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, writing for the BBC's Magazine. “It’s an assumption coffee companies are happy not to challenge… They’re not going to tell conscientious consumers that putting a used coffee cup in a recycling bin is pointless. But it is.”

The cups served up by most high street coffee chains are currently “almost impossible to recycle”, Fearnley-Whittingstall says. To make their cups waterproof, many major coffee shops use cardboard fused with polyethylene, a material that can’t be separated out again in a normal recycling plant.

While they could technically be recycled, it would require a highly specialised recycling facility – and there are only two of those in the UK. Legally, however, this means that companies are allowed to claim that their cups are “recyclable”. 

To make the cups even more environmentally unfriendly, they are not made from recycled material in the first place.

“The millions of coffee cups we use every day are, in effect, virgin material with a single use, thrown almost immediately into the bin – a horrendous waste, with a hefty carbon footprint,” writes Fearnley-Whittingstall.

So what’s to be done?

If you care about the environment but the thought of going without your daily macchiato makes your blood run cold, don’t panic. Fearnley-Whittingstall recommends that we all “make a noise”, to let major companies know that we want them to reduce the amount of waste they generate.

However in recent months coffee companies have been trying out new recycling initiatives in an effort to be more eco-friendly. In November last year, Costa, the UK’s largest coffee chain, launched a recycling scheme in all of its stores to try to recycle as many of their takeaways cups as possible – including those from their competitors.

By encouraging customers to leave their cup or return with it, the chain claim they could recycle as many as 30 million per year, according to The Guardian. Furthermore Costa is currently funding research at Sheffield University into cup recyclability and currently donates 25p to litter charities every time a customer uses a reusable cup in a Costa coffee shop.

Meanwhile, Starbucks is trialling a fully recyclable coffee cup, called the Frugalpac, in the hope of significantly decreasing the number of takeaway cups reaching landfill sites.

Branches of both Pret and Paul offer discounts to customers who bring their own cup. Launched in April this year, the sandwich chain and the French bakery group announced separate eco-friendly schemes with customers benefiting financially; Paul will provide customers with a 10p discount for every reuseable cup used when ordering a hot drink, while Pret offers customers a 25p discount.

As brands respond to consumer demand, Costa, Pret, Starbucks and Paul all also encourage customers to use refillable cups by selling their own branded versions.

This, you can still get your caffeine fix – but invest in a reusable cup instead. Here are some of the best… 

Vera Wang check print travel mug, £18

KeepCup, £7

Stojo collapsible reusable coffee cup, £15

XOXO Stationary personalised initial travel mug, £18.50

Byocup, £9.95

Images: iStock


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Moya Crockett

Moya is a freelance journalist and writer from London, and a former editor at Stylist.