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How to ditch disposable cups - and transform the way you enjoy coffee | Maddie Thomas
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How to ditch disposable cups – and transform the way you enjoy coffee | Maddie Thomas

Almost everyone has a reusable cup (or three) in their kitchen cupboard, but the convenience of disposable cups often triumphs on the morning coffee run.

In Australia, an estimated 1.8bn single use coffee cups go to waste each year, and the number exceeds 500bn globally.

Alongside recent bans on non-compostable single use cups, from swap schemes to reusables, what can we do to curb coffee cup waste?

Washing up

At Alphington Farmers Market in north-east Melbourne, you won’t see any disposable coffee cups. Instead, their wash against waste station saves an estimated 500 cups from landfill every Sunday.

“We have a number of ready-to-eat stalls, and they are extraordinary small businesses,” says Anne Duncan, CEO of Melbourne Farmers Markets.

“Say 15 years ago, those ready-to-eat stalls would have served you your meal on a plastic plate or in a clamshell box … but those utensils and crockery would have been single use.”

At the wash station – a trailer with a small commercial dishwasher – staff and volunteers wash plates, bowls, cutlery and cups for patrons and stallholders to reuse, eliminating the need for single-use packaging.

Alphington Farmers market’s wash against waste programView image in fullscreen
A volunteer washing up at Alphington Farmers marketView image in fullscreen

Part of Darebin city council, which became the first government in the world to declare a climate emergency in 2016, the markets have also banned plastic bags as part of waste reduction efforts and their bakery is a participating retailer of Wangim, a cup swap program used by over 20 cafes in the area.

“I was a little bit concerned about how the community would view things that had been used by somebody else,” says Duncan.

“We’ve set up this particular station with a commercial dishwasher with specific sanitising equipment that would guarantee cleanliness. But also there’s a real hunger for doing something that the community feels is in the best interests of the environment.”

Swapping and reusing

When zero-waste cafe Cat and Cow opened in Sydney’s eastern suburbs five years ago, it offered reusable cups or BYO mugs only. But less than a year in, Covid forced the cafe to bring in disposable cups.

“It feels like we are still recovering from it,” says co-owner Lenka Kriz.

“We have customers come in now, four years later, and they’re like … ‘I still haven’t used my KeepCup since Covid.’”

Cat and Cow uses reusable Huskee cups for dine in customers, as well as using Huskee’s swap program for takeaways. The cafe also has a mug library to make single use cups (which they charge an extra 20c for) the last resort.

“I’d rather wash people’s cups than put their coffee in a disposable cup, because for me it’s 10 seconds of my time versus this thing staying here for ever,” says Kriz.

Community initiatives are also using the swap model to reduce waste. Swap for Good, a program launched by Northern Beaches Council in Sydney, worked with coffee cup swap providers including HuskeeSwap, Green Caffeen, Returnr and Claycups to reduce the use of disposable cups. More than 60 local businesses in the area are now swapping cups.

Sitting in

Coffee culture is cherished in Australia, but we tend to drink on the go. In Italy morning espresso is drunk standing at the bar, while in Japan it is not considered polite to walk and drink coffee.

Here, Duncan says we see coffee as a “warm hug to start the day”, but says understanding how people think about their morning coffee is an opportunity for businesses.

“Changing any kind of human behaviour starts with a recognition of where we are at the moment, which is ‘I want something so I can quickly get on the bus’, says Duncan.

“How can we make that not a single use coffee cup?”

Zero waste cafe Cat & Cow in Randwick, Sydney aims to serve all coffee in reusable cups, from cup swap programs to a mug libraryView image in fullscreen

At Cat and Cow, Kriz says she and her staff try to educate customers to think differently about their waste, encouraging them to take five minutes to dine in instead.

While Kriz can’t see herself getting rid of disposable cups altogether (about 30% of her customers opt for single use), she would like to see cafes make the effort to reduce their volume, something that has the added benefit of being a huge cost saving for businesses.

“I feel like it can really transform the way you enjoy your coffee. For me, as soon as something is in a takeaway, disposable container, it feels like the value goes down,” says Kriz.

“People will have their own habits, their own preferences, but just offering the options and encouraging reusability is the way to go.”

Recycling right

The environmental impact of disposable cups is great – 6.5m trees are cut down every year to produce the 16bn paper cups used globally. The KeepCup impact calculator estimates that drinking just three coffees a week in a reusable coffee cup saves 5.5kg of CO2e. It would also save half a kilo of plastic and 150 coffee cups.

While the plastic lining on disposable cups is necessary to prevent leakage, it makes can make them near-impossible to recycle. Cat and Cow’s takeaway cups for example are fully compostable, but still rely on the community recycling them properly.

While the popularity of the KeepCup model skyrocketed more than a decade ago, many still favour convenience. With initiatives like the wash station, Duncan says the key to raising awareness is giving people what they need in the moment.

“You can do exactly what you want on a Saturday morning without having to prepare … let’s just make it as simple as we can to take the next baby step.”

Source: theguardian.com