Is there a problem with reusable bamboo takeaway coffee cups?

Holly Szakal
November 2, 2023
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In recent years, reusable cups have become the go-to choice for many coffee consumers, even before the Covid-19 pandemic. Notably, Argos UK reported a 537% jump in sales for reusable takeaway coffee cups between 2017 and 2019.

Brands such as Fellow and KeepCup have become popular thanks to their range of reusable cups made from materials like bamboo, metal, and glass. Seen as more environmentally friendly than their single-use plastic counterparts, reusable coffee cups are a handy way of keeping caffeine levels topped up without the associated waste. 

However, in 2019, the public expressed concerns about the mixture of bamboo products with plastic. Tests were conducted by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, which warned melamine and formaldehyde may leak from ‘bamboo ware’ products when filled with hot liquids like tea and coffee.

So, is there a problem with reusable bamboo takeaway coffee cups? And does it filter down to single-use coffee cups made from the same material? I spoke to Jacie Nicoll, co-owner of Smokestack Roasters in Lunenburg, Massachusetts, to find out if specialty coffee roasters are concerned. 

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Has the popularity of reusable takeaway coffee cups dropped?

Several coffee shops encourage customers to bring reusable takeaway cups, going as far as to offer incentives such as discounts. “With the recent awareness of social responsibility, people have become more introspective about their contributions to the pollution problem,” Jacie explains. 

“Consumers found they could reduce their consumption by one disposable cup each time they reused the cup,” she adds. While this initiative was widely successful, the effects of Covid-19 put a bump in the road. 

Concerns over health and safety meant coffee shops became reluctant to accept reusable cups. Notably, at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, Starbucks went as far as to place a storewide ban on all reusable cups.

This global environment re-trained consumer habits to leave the cup at home. Within minutes, reusable coffee cups became an irrelevant household item, as they were no longer accepted for their general purpose. 

A post-pandemic survey revealed 39% of the 2,000 respondents claimed to possess a reusable coffee cup. However, a striking 79% admitted to frequently leaving it at home. The environmental organisation, Hubbub, conducted a poll in June 2022 that involved 3,000 individuals across the UK. The poll found that of the 78% of respondents who purchase hot beverages, over half of them use single-use coffee cups at least once a week. Additionally, only 4.6% reported using reusable cups exclusively.

It appears that the popularity of reusable coffee cups has dropped significantly as consumer habits have evolved and new information has been released. 

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Is there a problem with reusable bamboo takeaway coffee cups?

Studies suggest reusable coffee cups 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. 

Additionally, 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.

Recent tests conducted by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment found that formaldehyde release from some cups could exceed 30 times the daily intake for adults. Beyond this, repeated exposure to said toxic chemicals can cause damage to the kidneys and other vital organs. 

This study has potentially changed the way the public perceives bamboo takeaway cups. If repeated use puts consumers at risk, they are faced with a challenge: choosing between the environment and their personal health.

“While bamboo appears to be a sustainable, easily produced option, manufacturing methods vary,” Jacie points out. “There is likely a lack of oversight into the processing methods.” 

Active 1: Moreover, companies often market bamboo ‘eco-cups’ as contributing to environmental protection, but they are often not recyclable. Regulatory authorities caution that these environmentally friendly assertions might deceive consumers into buying items they believe they can recycle down the line.

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Sustainable takeaway coffee cup alternatives

Clearly, the habits of coffee consumers have evolved. So, how can cafes provide takeaway coffees to consumers while still keeping the planet in mind?

Compostable takeaway coffee cups

Compostable coffee cups have become a popular option for coffee shops and roasters looking to reduce their environmental impact. Made from natural materials, they can break down naturally in the environment over time. 

More importantly, these cups are non-toxic as they are derived from materials that disintegrate in specific environmental conditions. These conditions can range from a typical compost heap in your garden to a carefully controlled industrial environment. 

Biodegradable takeaway coffee cups 

A great in-between option is biodegradable takeaway coffee cups. These cups are designed to break down under certain conditions over time, reducing the long-term impact on the environment compared to traditional disposable cups.

Biodegradable takeaway cups are made of polylactic acid (PLA). This material is typically derived from plant sugars, such as corn starch, sugar beet or sugar cane. When combined with compostable cups, PLA is used as a waterproof lining

Notably, it is conditionally compostable, which means it is unable to break down in a landfill or garden compost heap. Instead, it will degrade much like traditional plastics and produce harmful emissions. Therefore, PLA items must be carefully collected, cleaned, and industrially composted to prevent environmental damage.

Choosing the right takeaway coffee cups for delivery – and ensuring they are made from sustainable materials, are affordably priced, and are attractively branded – can feel like a major task. However, working with a full-service coffee packaging expert can make the process easier. 

At MTPak Coffee, we have years of expertise in custom-printing takeaway coffee cups for specialty coffee shops and roasters around the world. We offer 100% compostable takeaway coffee cups in various sizes: 4 oz, 8 oz, 16 oz, 12 oz, and 24 oz. 

Each one is available to order as either single or double wall, while we also sell sleeves and lids for all sizes. We can also help you creatively design and package your ground and roast coffee in a range of sustainable materials, such as kraft or rice paper with an LDPE or PLA lining, as well as colours, finishes, bag shapes and sizes.

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

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