Coffee chains deal with waste

Coffee cups represent a significant challenge for waste reduction efforts around the world. It’s estimated that Australians use more than 1 billion disposable coffee cups each year. Globally the figure is a staggering 600 billion paper and plastic cups. While many single use coffee cups look like paper, they can’t be easily recycled. The culprit is the plastic inner lining that prevents hot liquids seeping through the cup, but also can’t be separated from the cup at a standard recycling plant, making sustainable coffee cups a real problem.

A number of coffee chains, including 7-Eleven Australia and the UK’s largest coffee chain Costa Coffee have recently announced initiatives to combat the piles of takeaway cups

In Australia, 7-Eleven is one of the largest takeaway coffee sellers, along with Maccas – which should be a source of national shame! The convenience store chain is now rolling out a recycling strategy that provides bins for takeaway cups and Slurpee cups in 200 7-Eleven stores, as well as 50 other large-scale locations such as universities and schools. The chain hopes to keep 70m takeaway cups out of landfill every year with its new recycling stations. 7-Eleven CEO Angus McKay believes most people don’t appreciate that takeaway cups aren’t readily recyclable. McKay said most people do the right thing by placing these cups in recycling bins, without realising they end up in general landfill. McKay hopes his chain’s initiative will enable a different recycling process in Australia.

In the UK, Costa is taking a different approach, paying £70 extra for every tonne collected by waste companies, to make it “financially attractive” to collect, sort and transport coffee cups to recycling plants. The chain made a pledge to recycle up to 500m coffee cups a year by 2020 – the equivalent of Costa’s entire annual use of takeaway cups and one-fifth of the total 2.5bn takeaway cups used in the UK in 2017.

Costa and other coffee chains are also incentivising customers to use fewer takeaway cups. High street sandwich chain Pret a Manger offer a 50p discount to customers who bring in a reusable cup, while Costa offer 25p off your flat white.

Starbucks have taken a slightly more punitive approach for its UK customers. Brits who want their coffee in a take-away cup will pay a 5p levy. The three-month trial also rewarded customers who brought in reusable cups with a 25p discount. 35 shops across London participated in the trial, which six weeks in, showed a 150% increase in the use of reusable cups. However, while the increase sounds impressive the proportion of customers bringing their own reusable cup is still modest, increasing from 2.2% to 5.9% in participating stores. All money from the charge is being donated to environmental charity Hubbub.

In the US, Starbucks has made a number of pledges over the past decade to come up with a completely recyclable takeaway cup. It’s estimated Starbucks contributes 6 billion disposable cups annually to the waste problem, prompting environmental groups to label the coffee giant a “Cup Monster” and push for action on the problem.

Earlier this year the chain pledged US$10 million to a competition to develop a single-use coffee cup that can be composted or recycled. “We want to make sure this technology is available to everyone because it’s the right thing to do,” Andy Corlett, director of packaging research and development for Starbucks. “The idea of environmental sustainability in packaging is not just a Starbucks issue. It’s a global issue. Anything that gets us closer to that goal is not something we want to keep to ourselves.”

As online food commentator Eater observes, it seems incredible that a company with access to so much capital for research and development would be so clumsy in it adoption of more sustainable practices – especially when it comes to its most visible and iconic product packaging. However, variable waste services across Starbucks many locations make it easier for waste to be sent to landfill. The current offerings of biodegradable or compostable cups often aren’t. It’s testament to the size of the challenge to come up with an effective waste strategy for the ubiquitous takeaway coffee cup.