The popularity of reusable cups has been one of the most prominent environmental trends in recent years.
Designed to be used repeatedly in order to reduce waste, the concept of KeepCups was first introduced to customers in 2007. Since then, it is estimated these cups have helped save over 1 million disposable cups from landfill every day.
While reusable cups have certainly helped lessen the amount of single-use plastic waste, they are not a one-size-fits-all solution. Notably, reusable cups typically make up less than 5% of coffee sales. A 2019 survey revealed only 20% of US respondents “almost always” use their own cups when buying coffee to go.
This may be because many customers forget to carry them, or find the idea of having to clean them regularly inconvenient. Furthermore, a greater amount of energy and material is required to make this durable product. This is excluding the energy and resources it takes to repeatedly wash reusable cups.
Once other aspects of a reusable cup’s life cycle are considered, it shows they may not be as environmentally friendly as first thought.
What are reusable cups?
Essentially, reusable cups are cups designed to be used on the go and can be reused multiple times once they are washed.
The design and ergonomics of these often mimic those of single-use takeaway coffee cups. Typically, reusable cups are made from recyclable plastics, bamboo, or glass, while some more premium products feature stainless steel. These materials are chosen for their sustainability and high level of thermal insulation.
Specifically, reusable cups are designed to have a significantly extended lifespan compared to single-use cups, encouraging customers to continue using them.
Customers can bring their reusable cup to a cafe, or buy one there, in order to prevent almost immediately binning a single-use takeaway coffee cup.
Over the last decade, the inherent wastefulness of consumer throwaway culture has been exposed en masse. Across every aspect of life, single-use plastics were being criticised and initiatives were pushed to replace them.
Notably, the UK alone was going through 2.5 billion takeaway coffee cups a year. During this time, reusable cups were solutions that could be introduced quickly and easily.
Before more sustainable technology was developed, reusable cups were a highly effective solution. In 2018, after implementing a 5p charge for single-use alternatives, coffee chain Starbucks saw a 150% increase in the use of reusable cups.
Similarly, UK catalogue retailer Argos reported a 537% rise in reusable cups sales from December 2016 to December 2017.
These consumer trends clearly indicate the public is prioritising the environment. Advancements in sustainability technologies have given rise to a number of alternatives, including recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable takeaway cups.
However, do reusable cups truly rival the alternatives that have now been created?
Why were reusable cups so popular?
While sustainability is a major driving force behind the rise of reusable cup purchases, there were multiple factors at play.
As the public became more concerned with sustainability, being environmentally friendly became a trend of sorts. As a result, consumers began buying more sustainable lifestyle products. Reusable cups were a great choice as their eco-consciousness was immediately visible.
As more people bought sustainable products, a number of brands introduced them to their range. Major companies such as Starbucks, KeepCup, and Chilly’s released bespoke, branded, and intricately designed reusable cups.
These changes continued to fuel the cycle, as the rise in stylish designs and the ongoing trend of sustainable lifestyles drove reusable cups to mass popularity.
Furthermore, this popularity was greatly aided by the “Attenborough Effect” – a remarkable phenomenon which was coined by a team of researchers. Sir David Attenborough is a world-renowned English broadcaster, biologist, natural historian and author.
A 2019 report reveals the work of David Attenborough, particularly his Blue Planet II series, directly led to a 53% reduction in single-use plastic in the UK and US, in just 12 months. This proves there is serious power in harnessing popular appeal.
Are reusable cups really environmentally friendly?
The 2020 breakout of Covid-19 put a temporary halt to the rise in reusable cups.
At the height of the pandemic, reusable cups were limited by many companies over hygiene. Starbucks, in particular, was quite strict, temporarily banning the use of reusable cups across all of their stores.
Now restrictions are easing, and contamination concerns have eased, the environmental value of reusable cups is being assessed.
Many reusable cups are made from plastic. If treated well, and it is eventually recycled, these cups do not pose a problem. However, if reusable cups are not being used correctly, this plastic represents a lot of non-biodegradable waste.
Additionally, manufacturing these cups requires a greater amount of resources and energy. For instance, a paper cup takes 0.5MJ (500KJ) of energy to manufacture, while plastic reusable cups take 6.3MJ (6.300KJ) to produce.
This, coupled with the resources required to clean them repeatedly, can only be outweighed if the cup is used enough times. According to research, a reusable cup must be used between 20 and 100 times to successfully create free emissions than disposable cups.
When a customer uses a reusable cup just once, it only saves 0.04kg of carbon dioxide and a trace amount of plastic. As a result, it takes many uses to counteract their own production.
Therefore, if a customer chooses a reusable cup every time they buy a coffee, it is considered sustainable. However, research done in 2020 found that while over two-thirds of people have their own reusable cups, only 1 in 6 say they remember to use them every time they buy a hot beverage.
The most common reason for this gap is that people often forget them, or feel uncomfortable asking retail outlets to wash their cups before refilling them.
Subsequently, many reports suggest reusable cups may have a larger negative impact on the environment than single-use alternatives.
That said, ongoing developments in sustainable materials provide cafe owners and coffee roasters with eco-friendly options, such as takeaway cups that are completely biodegradable or compostable. This means that even if consumers choose a single-use coffee cup, the environmental impact will be minimal.
The most important thing for consumers to do is evaluate how often they’re likely to use a reusable cup. If they are willing to carry it with them each day, it is an effective way to prevent waste.
However, those who are unable to carry one should prioritise visiting roasters or cafes that offer biodegradable or compostable takeaway coffee cups. This way, customers can exercise their consumer power and continue to influence brands to make the sustainable switch.
At MTPak Coffee, we offer roasters a range of 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.
We offer cups in three different sizes: 8oz, 12oz, and 16oz. Each one is available to order as either single or double wall, while we also sell sleeves for all three sizes.
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.