Are recyclable takeaway cups better than reusable ones?

Kahwei Yoong
January 20, 2022
recyclable coffee cups

Over the last few years, reusable cups have become the go-to choice for many coffee consumers. Seen as more environmentally friendly than disposable cups, they offer a handy way of keeping caffeine levels topped up without throwing anything away afterwards.

However, a takeaway coffee is often an impulse purchase rather than a pre-mediated one, which means consumers often don’t have the reusable cup with them.

What’s more, as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to put health and safety at the top of the agenda, a number of coffee shops have placed temporary bans on their use.

As a result, coffee shops and roasters have turned to recyclable takeaway cups to both reduce their environmental impact and continue serving customers.

And while many continue to worry about low recycling rates, the landscape is changing thanks to the introduction of dedicated recycling schemes and better education.

To find out more about this and how it will affect the future of takeaway cups, I spoke to three-time South African Barista Champion and MTPak Coffee Ambassador, Ishan Natalie.

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An image of a reusable takeaway coffee cup made from silicone in an article on whether recyclable takeaway cups better than reusable ones?

What are the challenges?

In recent years, reusable options have been put forward as a way of solving the widespread use of takeaway cups. For example, brands such as Fellow and KeepCup have become popular thanks to their range of reusable cups made from materials like bamboo, metal, and glass.

However, despite their popularity, studies suggest they may not be as sustainable as people think. One study shows that it can take between 20 and 100 uses for a reusable cup to make up for the greenhouse gas emissions of a single-use cup. For ecosystem quality indicators, it can take more than 1,000 uses.

This is because of the resources required to make them and repeatedly wash them using hot water and soap, according to François Saunier, Deputy Executive Director at CIRAIG, a sustainability research institute based in Canada.

In addition, some cup materials, such as bamboo fibre, may allow stronger flavours to penetrate the cup structure and gradually release them into new beverages, thus altering the taste.

So what’s the issue with recyclable cups?

Although recyclable coffee cups are a great alternative to traditional styrofoam cups, there are a couple of problems.

First is the shortage of dedicated recycling facilities. Most takeaway cups are lined with polyethylene to enable them to hold liquid and prevent leakage.

While the individual components (paper and plastic) of a takeaway cup are recyclable, it is the way both materials are bonded together that can make them difficult to separate and recycle. In the UK, for example, there are three recycling facilities that are properly equipped to deal with disposable cups.

Additionally, disposable packaging that has come into contact with food or drink is often considered “contaminated” and not accepted by recycling facilities, which poses further challenges to recycling plastic waste.

Unfortunately, many consumers do not know how to dispose of them properly so they can be responsibly recycled, and there are not enough facilities available to complete the process.

An image of three sustainable takeaway coffee cups made from kraft paper coffee cups, in an article on whether recyclable takeaway cups better than reusable ones?

What are the potential solutions to the problem?

Considering the success of the UK’s plastic bag levy which reduced sales of plastic carrier bags in major retailers by 95%, a surcharge model can also be applied to takeaway cups.

Ishan has worked in the coffee industry for more than a decade. He says a way forward may be for companies to have a surcharge on takeaway packaging.

“It’s a tricky one because you don’t want a company charging more, and then they don’t use that money to find ways to recycle the cups,” he says “However, surcharge can be good, but you need to encourage customers to bring the cups back to your establishment so that it can be recycled in-house.”

For example, Coffee giant Starbucks found a way to upcycle disposed cups through its new programme, Circular Cup. They collect used paper cups in-store to create reusable mugs.

McDonald’s offers a similar scheme in which customers can return their takeaway cups to participating McDonald’s restaurants. The cups are then collected to be individually cleaned and sanitised at a dedicated facility after each use, before being reused again. The scheme, which is currently in its pilot phase, is the result of a global partnership between the fast food giant and TerraCycle’s circular packaging service, Loop.

An image of a paper takeaway coffee cup, single-use takeaway cup, recyclable takeaway coffee cup in an article on whether recyclable takeaway cups better than reusable ones?

The role of education

Tackling the takeaway cup crisis is not only about reducing the number of cups we use, it’s also about educating consumers on how to manage them once they’ve been used.

Ishan points out that the relationship roasters have with their consumers is an advantage here.

“If I talk to you about something face-to-face and show you the impact, then you will understand and probably pay more attention to it than if you see it on a banner or on social media,” he says.

Specialty coffee roasters or cafe owners can use this as an opportunity to find creative ways to educate and increase their consumers’ environmental consciousness.

Another option is to use compostable, plant-based materials. Compostable cups are made from materials such as polylactic acid (PLA), which eventually break down into smaller particles.

When placed in a composting environment, they decompose completely to produce nutrient-rich compost that is not damaging to the environment and can be re-used in a consumer’s garden.

These plant-based alternatives tie in perfectly with the growing practice of a circular economy. This encourages coffee roasters, cafe owners and consumers to use resources more efficiently by using them repeatedly, instead of using them just once and disposing of them.

An image of a barista pouring steamed milk into a black filter coffee in a paper takeaway coffee cup, sustainable takeaway coffee cups, in an article on whether recyclable takeaway cups better than reusable ones?

At MTPak Coffee, we offer fully sustainable takeaway coffee cups that can be made from either kraft paper or PET. Our cups are coated with more eco-friendly alternatives such as PLA, which is a plant-based bioplastic from renewable resources.

Strong, lightweight and compostable, it is a good choice for roasters looking to reduce the impact on the environment and to communicate their commitment towards sustainability.

For information on our compostable takeaway cups, contact our team.

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