I was inspired to write this Saturday Supplement after reading an article earlier this week by Ashley Tomlinson on The Little Black Coffee Cup about the issues surrounding disposable coffee cups. If you have been following the Coffee Spot for a while, you will know that I really, really dislike disposable cups, although I’ve come at it from a very different direction. While I don’t like the waste that comes with disposable cups, my primary motivation is one of taste. Put simply, I can’t stand the way most coffee tastes when drunk from disposable cups.
This has led me to adopt a somewhat evangelical attitude to reusable coffee cups and, while I’ve been championing them for some time now, I realise that I’ve been doing it in a rather haphazard fashion, writing about cups as I’ve come across them (usually at coffee festivals). I’ve also been making the argument for them (and hence against disposable cups) in a similarly piecemeal fashion. This Saturday Supplement attempts to rectify that by bringing everything together into one place in the form of a new Reusable Cups section of the Coffee Spot where I can add new cups as and when I find them.
You can read more of my thoughts after the gallery.
As I’ve said, I came to reusable cups primarily on taste grounds, although there are sound environmental reasons for ditching the disposable cup. However, rather than rehash these here, I urge you to read Ashley’s article, as well as this one by Jennifer Ferreira for a more UK-focused look at the problem.
While today’s Saturday Supplement is primarily to launch the new Reusable Cups section of the Coffee Spot, I also want to talk about some of the drawbacks (perceived and real) surrounding reusable cups, as well as some other alternatives to disposable cups. Ultimately, however, this all comes down to you and me as consumers: the change away from disposable cups is one we can make if we collectively decide to do it. If we don’t, then it’s never going to happen.
Looking at reusable cups, I see two big issues, the first being cost. Yes, reusable coffee cups are expensive. You can expect to pay anywhere between £10 and £20 for a decent one (although in the interests of openness, all the reusable coffee cups I currently own were gifts). Now, I’m not going to pretend that this isn’t a fairly hefty price-tag, but it’s not that expensive in the grand scheme of things. If you’re a regular coffee drinker, tot up what you pay in a month or even a week, and that will put things into perspective. However, it is a relatively large, one-off barrier to get you going, particularly if you are wondering if you will use it that often.
Of course, the industry could do more to promote reusable cups, for example, by offering discounts. However, I’m not convinced it’s a huge incentive. Even with a 20p discount each time you used a reusable cup, you’d still need to buy 100 (takeaway) cups of coffee to break-even on a £20 cup. Although I’d welcome more places offering a discount for reusable cups, I think if we’re relying on financial motivation alone, then we’ve lost the battle.
The second major issue is remembering to take your reusable cup with you. Now, I’ll admit, I’m not a typical user, so perhaps I’m not the best example, but pretty much everywhere I go, I take a small rucksack with me and, in that rucksack, is at least one reusable cup. On the odd occasion that I do go out without my rucksack, I (usually) remember to stuff a reusable cup in a coat pocket. Plus there’s remembering to take them out and wash them when you get home (something I really should get better at…).
I know it can be inconvenient at times, but it’s a matter of habit/routine. Ultimately, the way I see it, the question is “is it worth it?”. If the answer’s no, then we’re going to continue to throw away millions of cups every year. However, there are ways of addressing this without resorting to reusable cups.
One option is increasing the adoption of biodegradable disposable cups. While this doesn’t remove the waste issue altogether, it’s certainly far better than the typical takeaway cup, the majority of which seem to end up in landfill, even when they can be recycled. This is really something that the industry needs to take a lead on, although we can have an impact as consumers (for example, by not using coffee shops which don’t have biodegradable cups).
Another option is very much within our control and that’s to consider changing our habits. Do we really need that takeaway cup? If you’re doing a coffee run for the office, maybe you do, but if you’re buying solo, do you have to take it away? Now, again, I’m not a typical user since my preferred drink size is a 6oz flat white, but seriously, how long does it take you to drink your coffee? Are you really in such a hurry that you can’t spend five minutes at the coffee shop? This is particularly true of espresso drinkers, ordering their little takeaway cups. C’mon, it’s an espresso! We need to take a leaf out of Italy’s book here and drink it standing up at the bar.
There are several more ideas in Ashley’s article, but before I go, I wanted to echo one thing that she said towards the end of her piece. A lot of what I’ve talked about is down to behaviour and, as Ashley points out, social media plays a large role in that. So here’s my plea to you.
Even if you can’t stop using disposable coffee cups, please stop taking pictures of them. Please stop sharing pictures of them. Please stop liking pictures of them. Together, let’s stop making the disposable coffee cup the norm.
If you’re interested in the various reusable coffee cups I use, and what I think of them, you can check them all out in the new Reusable Cups section of the Coffee Spot. There’s a short summary of each one, plus links to all the articles I’ve written about them.
January 2018: The issue of disposable coffee cups became big news in the UK with the publication of a report by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee recommending, amongst other things, a £0.25 levy on disposable cups. You can see what I made of it here.
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