Reusable vs recyclable coffee cups: Which are best? 

Maira Kanai-Nasir
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June 14, 2024
recyclable coffee cups, reusable coffee cups, takeaway coffee cups, coffee cups, single use coffee cups, disposable coffee cups,

The popularity of reusable drinking vessels has been one of the most prominent environmental trends in recent years. For instance, between 2018 and 2019, the popularity of reusable coffee cups seemed to be on the rise, shifting consumers away from single-use items. However, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, their popularity fell in favour of more hygienic, recyclable coffee cups. 

That said, statistics show that a desire to transition to reusable vessels is still there. Notably, a 2023 study by Mintel found that over 70% of Gen Z carry a reusable water bottle. This may, in part, be fuelled by TikTok’s fascination with Stanley cups, which saw the brand’s revenue triple almost overnight.

This raises the question of why reusable water bottles can become must-haves while their cup counterparts remain forgotten. Furthermore, is the collection of these reusable items simply overconsumption rather than sustainability in action? 

So, which option is truly the most sustainable: recyclable coffee cups or reusable alternatives? To learn more, I spoke to Michael Overcash from the Environmental Genome Initiative and Zainab Al Mousawi from To The Moon and Back.

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Recyclable coffee cups or reusables: Which is best for your business?

Ultimately, the choice between recyclable coffee cups and reusables will depend on your type of business. For example, coffee carts will not have the facilities to clean reusable cups before use, which makes recyclable options better suited. Alternatively, the majority of brick-and-mortar locations will have everything required to cater to reusable coffee cups. 

That said, research 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 coffee cup. For ecosystem quality indicators, it can take more than 1,000 uses. Research done by CIRAIG, a sustainability research institute based in Canada, states that this number increases due to the resources required to make reusable cups and repeatedly wash them with hot water and soap. 

Zainab is the owner and founder of To The Moon and Back in Dubai. She has found that the majority of consumers expect baristas to wash reusable cups before use,  which can raise hygiene concerns. 

“I believe that cross-contamination can happen when washing cups during busier times,” she explains. “So, it’s often safer and cleaner to use disposable coffee cups.” 

Washing reusable coffee cups requires detergents, water, and heat, which uses energy. Recyclable coffee cups, on the other hand, are far less resource-intensive. They don’t require cleaning or much maintenance beyond storage. This is highly advantageous as larger business expenses include rent, electricity, and water. 

Michael was a corresponding author on a research paper titled: ‘Comparing reusable to disposable products: Life cycle analysis metrics’. 

“From an environmental point of view, we learned that reusable options seem to have an advantage primarily because they get used for [numerous] cycles,” he explains. 

However, to discover which is best for your business, Michael advises to “get information on both kinds of products. Not just how they’re made but also their reusability and how often they are cycled,” he says. “There are aspects of the use and end-of-life phases of that product that have environmental footprints.”

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The benefits of recyclable coffee cups

Zainab believes that, overall, recyclable coffee cups are more cost-effective for most businesses. These cups take up less space than their reusable counterparts, which are often made of bamboo fibre, glass, or steel. Additionally, recyclable coffee cups are available in industry-standard sizes, making them easy to stack and store in small cupboards or under counters. 

Another benefit of recyclable coffee cups is that they can be fully customised to increase brand exposure. A custom printed coffee cup is essentially a free advertisement for any coffee business – one that can help bring in new customers and sell more coffee. A consistent brand style and colour palette across coffee bags and to go cups can ensure consumers recognise the product. This, in turn, helps increase repeat sales and boost profit margins. 

“[Custom disposable coffee cups] increases brand visibility, Zainab agrees. “It also helps with mouth-to-mouth marketing.” She further explains that each year, To The Moon and Back changes the design of its disposable coffee cups. “Every design tells a story of how the brand is doing. For instance, when we got over Covid-19, the design was a ‘thank you’ to our customers for their loyalty and support. This also helped them feel more connected and engaged with our brand,” she adds. 

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What to consider when investing in takeaway coffee cups

As Michael mentioned, research will factor into which form of takeaway coffee cup is best for your business. When it comes to reusable options, Zainab reminds brands to consider the sustainability of the material. 

“What are the tumblers made from, and how are they produced? How are they disposed of at the end of their lifecycle?” she asks. “I’d encourage people to invest in reusable cups made from sustainable materials like glass, stainless steel, or BPA-free plastics. Proper care and maintenance, as well as recycling or proper disposal at the end of their life, also contribute to their overall environmental impact.”

At MTPak Coffee, we have the expertise to provide business owners and coffee roasters with disposable coffee cups made from high-quality materials that are kind to the environment. Our range of sustainable takeaway coffee cups is made from biodegradable or recyclable materials such as bamboo fibre, PET, or kraft paper with an environmentally friendly PLA or aqueous lining.

Our takeaway coffee cups are available in the following sizes: 4 oz, 8 oz, 16 oz, 12 oz, and 24 oz. Beyond this, our eco-friendly coffee cups are strong, waterproof, lightweight, and 100% compostable. Beyond this, they can be custom-designed using innovative digital printing technology to feature your brand logo, QR codes, or recycling instructions.

Our use of digital printing allows us to offer customers a quick turnaround and shipping time. This allows us to offer low minimum order quantities (MOQs) of packaging, no matter what size or material.

Last article image courtesy of To The Moon and Back

For more information on recyclable coffee cups, contact our team

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Maira Kanai-Nasir
Maira Kanai-Nasir

Discovering specialty coffee whilst working in Australia, Maira has previously worked in Specialty Coffee as a trainer and coffee product buyer for many years. She currently resides in Dubai, UAE working as a specialty coffee writer, with a strong passion for all things coffee.

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