Would a returnable cup programme suit your café?

Janice Kanniah
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June 2, 2023
An image of a takeaway coffee cup being placed in a recycling bin in an article on a returnable cup programme

Several studies show the world is grappling with a growing pollution problem, and single-use plastics are primarily responsible for the waste. While recycling initiatives have increased, as have the use of alternative materials, as yet, they have proven ineffective in reducing plastic waste. A significant pollution stream is takeaway disposable coffee cups, which are often lined with plastic to prevent leaks. 

The UK government is addressing this in three ways: by issuing disposable cup fees, encouraging the use of reusable cups, and introducing a returnable cup programme. The option to return used cups has become increasingly popular. This involves placing “reverse” vending machines in public so customers can buy takeaway coffee and return the cups for a “cash back”. The local government believes this will eliminate up to 85% of cups typically used and discarded over three years.

Café owners and roasters who offer takeaway coffee may wonder whether a cup return programme affects the bottom line and the business’s ability to serve customers. Discover how adopting a returnable cup programme could impact operations and how business owners can make the transition as smooth as possible.

Why use a returnable cup programme?

The growth of the global disposable cup market is being driven by three factors: increased urbanisation, a growing drinks service industry, and a demand for convenience that sees customers drinking on the go. 

Traditional takeaway cups made from materials such as Styrofoam and polypropylene have largely fallen out of favour because of poor recycling outcomes. These cups are often incorrectly recycled, which leads to waste stream contamination. Or, they end up in a landfill due to limited recycling facilities and infrastructure in the area. 

Cups that are lined with bioplastics, such as polylactic acid (PLA), must be collected and processed separately from other waste streams to be broken down in a dedicated industrial facility. In the UK alone, over 100 of these cups are purchased every second. Collectively, the UK consumes over 3.2 billion drinks annually – 2 million of which will not be recycled correctly. 

Other countries are facing similar issues, with Japanese coffee chains disposing of 369.5 million disposable cups annually — working out to a million cups per day. In Australia, this figure rises to 2.7 million cups a day, or a staggering 1 billion coffee cups a year. 

An image of takeaway coffee cup being handed between barista and coffee consumer in an article on a returnable cup programme

Do returnable cup programmes work?

While it would be incorrect to assume all consumers think alike, it is clear they experience similar challenges when it comes to recycling cups. A significant issue for consumers is the inconvenience of finding suitable recycling bins or finding a collection scheme in their area. To help combat this problem, several specialty coffee roasters and cafés are implementing their own versions of returnable cup programmes. 

In 2022, Starbucks began rolling out reusable cup programme trials across the UK, Switzerland, Germany and Paris to halve the brand’s waste by 2030. This allowed customers to request a reusable cup at the till for a small deposit. They could then get this money back, as well as an additional discount, by returning the cup. Starbucks aims to roll this out across 4000 other stores in Europe, the Middle East and Africa by 2025.

Scotland is implementing similar programmes on a smaller scale. One trial involved charging 10p for single-use cups being served at a local hospital. The hospital also reduced the price of the drinks by 10pc to make the offering cost-neutral. More so, they swapped out paper disposable coffee cups with polypropylene ones. As a result, reusable cup use increased by 1% to 43% while also increasing sales by 10%. It also reduced consumption by 157 cups a day.

An image of compostable takeaway coffee cups, compostable cups, takeaway cups, single-use coffee cups, in an article on a returnable cup programme

Tips for implementing your own takeaway cup programme

Whether you are waiting for an official programme or want to create one of your own, there are several ways to determine whether a cup return programme will work for your business. For example, it helps to start with baseline knowledge of how many cups your customers use daily. This will help you track cost savings, determine how many cups you save, and how long it took you to get there. 

You can also investigate where your disposable cups usually end up when thrown away. It can also help to get to know your customers’ consumption patterns better. Knowing how they feel about using reusable cups instead of disposable ones is critical, as you will need to get them to buy into this for the programme to have an impact. 

You can do this by communicating it to them on your website and in-store. Or, you could have them fill in a short anonymous questionnaire on their current recycling sustainability efforts. More so, be sure to communicate your efforts during the programme, as this will show consumers how their efforts are helping curb local pollution levels. 

You may feel that your café isn’t ready to launch into such a scheme for a number of reasons. If so, you still have more environmentally friendly options than offering them cups that end up in landfills. For example, you could switch to home compostable cups or collect industrially compostable ones to ensure they are sent to the correct facility for disposal.

The world is changing, and your approach to single-use packaging should evolve accordingly. If you aren’t sure where to begin, start by contacting MTPak Coffee. As specialty coffee packaging experts, we can help set you on the right path. We have a line of eco-friendly takeaway coffee cups that includes compostable and recyclable options. Our range of takeaway coffee cups is made from recyclable and sustianable materials such as bamboo fibre, PET, and kraft paper, with an environmentally friendly PLA lining. 

Our cups are available in four sizes: 4 oz, 8 oz, 12 oz, 16 oz, 18 oz, 22 oz, and 24 oz. In addition to being strong, waterproof, lightweight, and 100% compostable, our cups can be custom-designed using innovative digital printing technology to feature a QR code that leads consumers to your website.

For more information on sustainable custom-printed takeaway coffee cups, contact our team today.

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