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5000 cups a minute – something needs to change

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8 am: I wake up, feel groggy and grab a coffee on the way to the lab. For many of us students, coffee is the fuel that keeps us going. The UK goes through 5,000 coffee cups per minute and, despite common belief, only 1 in 400 is recycled. The popular to-go cup consists of paper coated with plastic to make it water- or coffee-proof. This plastic coat makes recycling incredibly difficult. Many shops, including Starbucks and Costa, offer discounts for customers who bring their own cup. Yet only 2% of customers worldwide make use of these offers. Even in Oxford, where many students try to reduce their waste, the barista at Nero on the High Street estimates a mere four people per week bring their own cup. Since environmental conscience and discounts alone are not making people ditch the single-use cup, is it time to introduce measures with the weight of the law behind them?

The two big enemies of the reusable cup are cost and convenience. For this article I tried to order to-go cups online. I expected they would be cheap but I was surprised just how cheap: 5.10p per cup. I assume big coffee chains get additional discounts on bulk orders. On the contrary using a reusable cup, paying a member of staff to put it in the dish washer and taking it out again is much more expensive for a coffee shop. So expensive in fact that Starbucks can offer me a 50 p discount for bringing my own instead of offering me one that they will wash afterwards. Paper cups made from recyclable materials are not an option either. They cost 1.5 times as much as the standard to-go cup – a difference that adds up.

Since environmental conscience and discounts alone are not making people ditch the single-use cup, is it time to introduce measures with the weight of the law behind them?

On my side – the customer side, that is – it is not so much cost but convenience that keeps single-use cups alive. The effort of carrying your own cup with you or, in the few places where reusable cups are offered, having to return it, beats the monetary incentive. At the universities in Lingen and Freiburg in Germany deposit-return systems have been introduced on coffee cups. While some students make use of them, the lack of drop-off points is a problem. As the only drop off point is inside the university, the system is inconvenient.

In order to make reusable cups a success, they need to be the best available (read: legal) choice for coffee shops and customers. The coffee shop will always choose the cheapest available cup while the majority of customers will choose the most convenient available option. Therefore measures to promote the reusable cup need to be introduced in all competing coffee shops  not in order to give a competitive advantage to the odd one out. Clearly this is where we need politics to play its role.

Two measures to bring the reusable cup to success come to mind. Firstly, there could be a charge for the wasteful paper cup, similar to the recently introduced mandatory charge for plastic bags in supermarkets. Since this charge was introduced the use of plastic bags dropped by more than 75%. Clearly this strategy has potential to reduce the paper cup problem by encouraging more people to bring their own cup. Alternatively a deposit-return system where the return of the cup results in a monetary reward could be introduced. Such systems have been successfully introduced for beer cups at music festivals and for plastic bottles in many EU countries as well as several Australian and US states. The automated deposit-return machines allow for a multitude of drop-off points.

Essential for both cup-charge and deposit on the cup, is a regulation that ensures all coffee shops on the (local) market take part. Having too many shops that do not charge for the cup or do not have a deposit on their cups would cripple the system. As an alternative to a law-enforced measure, there could be something like the climate treaty where all parties voluntarily commit. But we all know how well that worked.

Clearly, while everyone who brings their own mug to the shop contributes to waste reduction, a general solution can only be brought about by an Oxford- or UK-wide measure that ensures every shop is on board.

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