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.
April 2018: The lovely people over at the Boston Tea Party have taken this to its logical conclusion and have done what I and others have been asking: from 1st June 2018, single-use takeaway cups will no longer be available from BTP cafes. You can read all about what BTP is doing, and why, along with how this is going to work, over on the BTP Cafe Blog.
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Hi Brian. I think I might have mentioned the Pokito cup to you late last year? This is a collapsible cup invented by Andrew Brookes who hails from Chichester in West Sussex. It solves one of the biggest niggles people have which is where to put the wretched cup when it’s been used! Take a look at the video online and I’m sure you will be converted, if you have not already been so. He’s a really inspirational character and brimming with great ideas.
On the subject of how the café sector is promoting reusable cups:
One thing we do in our takeaway coffee outlet at the roastery is give a free drink to anyone buying a reusable cup (e coffee and Pokito in stock)…that essentially gives them a discount that is worth having. I’m sure this is not unique but nonetheless it has definitely driven sales of these items.
Additionally many of our regulars keep their own cups here for use when they come in.. Bit like the tankard of old in pubs!
Helps to keep the reusable concept at the forefront of everyone’s minds when you see a row of named cups on the shelf.
Great article – look forward to meeting you one of these days.
You had indeed mentioned the Pokito cup. I hadn’t realised it had actually gone into production.
it’s in production – he has already sold over 30000 of them. Thanks for keeping this subject at the forefront. I am grappling with this whole concept and even though we use compostible cups at the Edgcumbes Roastery Cafe i know we need to be doing more.. watch this space !
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I agree on so many levels with you Brian!
Taste first of all and the environmental issue too.
I am one of those Italians ordering just a single espresso and I find annoying that if I would like to enjoy my coffee the “Italian Way” I would actually need to pay extra as “stay in” rate.
So, my options are:
– Take away: bad paper taste
– Stay in: pay extra for an already expensive espresso (everywhere in Italy espresso costs only €1 including the cafe by the Coliseum in Rome)
– Disposable cup: which I need to remember to take with me and wash once at home
I will keep an eye on your page with the hope to find a solution.
I would recommend getting a Kaffee Form espresso cup. It’s made of recycled coffee grounds, is light and is easily portable. I’ve had one in my rucksack for 18 months and it’s still intact :-). You do have to remember to wash it out, but I wouldn’t be without mine!
I share your distaste for takeaway cups and takeaway culture in general.
This also applies to being served beer or wine in plastic.
And that is even before I come to the environmental aspect, a society built on pointless consumerism and disposal of waste.
If I drink a coffee, I wish to sit down and relax in a coffee shop with my my coffee in a ceramic cup, whether or not a saucer a moot point. If V60, Chemex or Japanese syphon, in a glass.
I do not like carting stuff around, if had a Keep Cup I would have to cart it around. Then I would leave it somewhere and lose it.
Where I think a Keep Cup comes into its own, is for office workers and shop workers who pop out for a takeaway coffee, then yes, they should be using a Keep Cup.
i agree about the convenience factor – whatever the case for reusable cups if they are not practical they won’t be adopted by enough people. that is a fact. you will always have the trailblazers but that is not enough to change embedded practices.
i still think that the Pokito collapsible cup is a real game changer – have you heard of it?
Your links to an article do not work.
But even when found, unreadable due to faint grey on a white background.
Thanks for the update to the link. I’ve now corrected the links in my post. I had another look at Ashley’s article and found it perfectly readable on both my laptop and mobile phone.
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