Why Coffee Shops Should Switch To Sustainable Takeaway Cups

Janice Kanniah
March 26, 2021
sustainable takeaway cups

Takeaway cups have been a regular fixture in coffee shops for decades. Convenient, affordable, and hygienic, they allow businesses to serve a greater number of customers without expanding their premises, while also catering to the on-the-go lifestyles of consumers.

However, in recent years, the environmental impact of takeaway cups has come increasingly under the spotlight. An estimated 2.5 billion takeaway cups are disposed of every year in the UK alone, the majority of which go to landfill. What’s more, it takes as much as 0.58 litres of water and 61g of carbon dioxide to produce each one, leaving a significant carbon footprint.

While some coffee businesses have encouraged the use of reusable “keep cups” to tackle the problem, the disposable cup market continues to grow. Over the last year, this has only been accelerated by the outbreak of Covid-19, which has forced many coffee shops to offer takeaway orders to survive. As a result, the global market is now expected to surpass $22 billion by 2026.

With our reliance on takeaway cups clear, many coffee businesses have gone in search of more sustainable options, such as the introduction of recyclable and compostable materials. Read on to find out more about how specialty roasters and coffee shop owners can make their takeaway options more sustainable.

See also: Reducing Single-Use Plastics In The Coffee Industry

recyclable takeaway cups

The Problem With Traditional Takeaway Cups

If you go to your local specialty coffee shop, the chances are you’ll be able to order a coffee to-go served in a takeaway cup. Since the early 1900s, takeaway cups have been a vehicle for both hot and cold drinks. 

For nearly 30 years, styrofoam was the undisputed material of choice for takeaway cups, until Starbucks introduced their paper cups in 1987 along with Solo Traveller lids. Coffee companies around the world quickly followed suit, with most offering their own version of the paper takeaway cup ever since.

Not only are takeaway cups useful for transporting coffee and increasing footfall without providing extra seats, they act as an effective marketing tool for coffee shops. Whether in the office, park, shopping mall, or on public transport, anyone holding your takeaway cup is essentially a walking advertisement for your brand.

However, concerns over the environmental impact of takeaway cups have grown in recent years. These concerns are based not on the recyclability of the materials used to make the cups, but rather the rate at which they’re recycled.

To prevent liquid from seeping out, paper cups usually have to be lined with plastic polyethylene (PE), which can make recycling difficult. Specialist equipment, transport, and infrastructure are required to separate the materials, which even some of the most developed countries don’t have in place. As a result of the high costs and limited availability of these facilities, the majority of takeaway cups end up going to landfill instead.

For example, on average the UK recycles just one out of every 400 paper takeaway cups it uses. This is because there are only three plants in the country equipped to recycle these materials. When you consider that 7 million disposable cups are used in the UK everyday, this represents a significant issue.

compostable PLA cups

Why Use Sustainable Takeaway Cups?

According to a 2021 Tetra Pak and Ipsos study, more consumers than ever are making informed choices when it comes to product packaging as they feel increasingly responsible for the wellbeing of the environment. It reveals that companies that fail to provide sustainable packaging could end up falling behind more eco-friendly competitors.

To reduce the amount of takeaway cups, many coffee shops have encouraged customers to bring their own reusable cups by offering discounts. For example, popular UK coffee chain Pret A Manger takes 50p off all coffee orders if customers provide their own cup. As an added incentive, some have even started charging an extra fee for those who ask for a takeaway cup.

However, while this has been relatively successful, the effects of Covid-19 have put a bump in the road. Concerns over health and safety mean that coffee shops have become increasingly reluctant to accept reusable cups. At the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, Starbucks went as far as to place a storewide ban on all reusable cups.

As a result, sustainable takeaway cups have risen in popularity. Affordable, lightweight, and robust, these cups do away with plastic PE lining in place of more eco-friendly alternatives such as polylactic acid (PLA).

PLA is a plant-based bioplastic made from renewable resources, including corn starch and sugar cane. It offers a strong, waterproof coating that can support both hot and cold liquids without affecting the flavour of the drink.

Unlike plastic PE, PLA is compostable and will break down in controlled environments without releasing harmful residues. Under normal conditions, this process can take up to 180 days, but in commercial facilities it is often just half that time.

But one of the main advantages of PLA lining compared to conventional petroleum-based plastics involves its production. According to a 2017 research paper on greenhouse gas mitigation for US plastics production, switching from petroleum-based plastics to corn-based bioplastics like PLA could cut US greenhouse gas emissions by a quarter.

By switching to sustainable takeaway cups, coffee shops can continue serving coffees to-go while limiting their impact on the environment. Not only will this put them ahead of competitors, it will also improve the sustainability of the coffee supply chain. 

This is especially true when water-based inks are used to customise the cups in place of solvent-based inks. Water-based inks have low volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can be harmful to the environment and the wellbeing of people. As they are made from plants, they’re also compostable and don’t have to be removed before recycling.

sustainable takeaway coffee

Over the last year, takeaway orders have allowed many coffee shops to survive during lockdowns. For customers, it’s provided an opportunity to continue enjoying their favourite coffee while at the same time supporting their local business.

Concerns over the environmental impact of takeaway cups have existed for decades. However, as plant-based alternatives such as kraft paper cups with PLA lining have become more widely available, now is as good a time as ever to make the switch.

At MTPak Coffee, we offer fully sustainable takeaway cups made from either kraft paper or PET with PLA lining. Strong, waterproof, lightweight, and compostable, they can be customised to your preferences using low VOC water-based inks. This affordable option will not only reduce your carbon footprint, but also showcase your commitment to sustainability, putting you ahead of less eco-friendly competitors.

For more information on our compostable takeaway coffee cups, contact our team here.

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