Coffee Cup Waste: What are the options?


Baltzersen’s was lucky enough to be approached by Sky News the other week, as part of the Ocean Rescue Series, to be part of a report about takeaway coffee cup waste.  The segment was driven by the release of a report for Bewley’s Coffee by Cardiff University on curbing coffee cup waste.

Click on the image below to watch the report:

Paul talking about coffee cup waste on Sky News

Inevitably whenever you provide comment for media outlets (especially pre-recorded) a lot of what you have to say is left on the floor of the editing room, which isn’t a bad thing.  In this case I wanted to lay out a few of my thoughts and perhaps drive a little bit of discussion on the topic.

The Problem

No need to expand to much here – a lot of drinks are served each day and it is creating a huge mountain of coffee cup waste that is being sent to landfill.  These cups, usually lined with plastic, take a long time to breakdown and recycling them is also incredibly difficult.

In the coffee industry convenience is often king, with the bulk of consumers only willing to travel a very finite distance for their caffeine hit.  If outlets go it alone and try to introduce schemes that are more environmentally friendly but make life more difficult for the consumer then they risk damaging their business.

‘Takeaway cups’ – the clue is in the name…..they are taken away.  This means that even if there were a large number of sites that were able to recycle the current coffee cup waste actually gathering those cups in quantity (once they have left the cafe) is very challenging.

Industry Response

Firstly I would say that the industry as a whole has potentially been a little slow reacting to the issue of coffee cup waste and I am guilty as charged.  Our coffee cups are recyclable but in reality, as the Sky News report said, there is only one facility in the country that is able to carry out the process.  So the chances of our cups making it there is probably fairly slim – so we are part of the problem.

The industry is beginning to take steps though.  Our house blend suppliers North Star Coffee Roasters have just launched their latest coffee bean packaging which is made from 50% recycled coffee cups – and very handsome it is too.

Technology has moved on and 100% compostable cups are also available, they come at a price premium, but they can be purchased.  In Harrogate our friends over at Bean and Bud are always at the forefront of emerging thinking and trends within the industry.  They moved to compostable cups a little while ago……shame on us for lagging behind.

Ways to improve the situation.

On the face of it the issue seems simple but I think to make meaningful progress it will have to be approached on a number of fronts.  There will be many more  options but here are a few worth considering:

Are reusable coffee cups the answer to coffee cup waste?

Reusable Cups

Reusable cups are an obvious option.  If guests bring their own it means no financial outlay for businesses and these can be used again and again.

The problem is that it’s just not convenient!  You don’t want to be carrying a cup all day on the off chance you fancy a coffee and then carrying the dirty cup around until you can find somewhere to give it a quick rinse.

Also, if you frequent a number of indies rather than just one regular spot then choosing the right cup size might pose a slight issue.

A German scheme in Freiburg (amongst other cities ) seems like a clever way to overcome some of the issues around convenience.  You pay €1 on top of the price of the coffee for a cup, once finished give it in to a participating shop who will return your €1 and wash the cup for use in the future.  It’s a really nice opportunity for a town or city to do some branding and promote their green credentials.  The Germans are great at this stuff – lightyears ahead on recycling and they use the ‘pfand‘ system to encourage plastic and glass bottle recycling.

Coffee cup waste could be reduced y composting

Compostable Cups

Compostable cups can be recycled with food waste or even on your compost heap.  These are still a form of waste but are a much lower impact and right now feel like the best option for situations where a cup cannot be avoided.  They are currently about twice the price of a recyclable cup (12p vs 6p) and then the lid is required on top at a further 5p.

These could form a minimum standard for disposable cups assuming that they are disposed of properly.

Could coffee cup waste be reduced by legislation


The levy has been significant in reducing the consumption of plastic bags and as such I feel a similar system could have a positive effect in reducing coffee cup waste, although I’m not sure it’s the best option.

A levy tends to move ownership of the problem from the business to the consumer, but at least it levels the playing field and all businesses are required to comply.

One unintended consequence of a levy without proper consideration is that it could create a disincentive to move towards newer compostable cups.  If the charge is flat across all cups then it’s suddenly a case of the cheaper the better and the environment is no longer considered.

It’s not just about coffee cup waste.

As a person in the coffee industry I would be keen to say that if the government chooses to legislate on this matter then this should be wide ranging and take in the whole catering industry.  This would include soft drink cups used at McDonalds, cups used in vending machines and plastic glasses used in event bars.  It would not be acceptable to penalise one sector over others that are creating a very similar problem.

So What…

As of today Baltzersen’s will not buy any more cups that are not compostable and recyclable via our food waste.

Once we have the compostable cups available we will trial our own ‘pfand’ system and give our guests some money back for returning their coffee cups for us to recycle.

We’re also going to do a bit of research around reusable cups and the Freiburg system.  Once we’ve got the facts we’llarrange a meeting with some of our colleagues in town (as well as the council) and see if a reusable cup system could work here in Harrogate.

Got some thoughts you want to share?

I’d love to hear from you whether it’s in a comment below, via email or on Twitter.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Hayden Howells says:

    Good analysis and forward thinking. Bravo Paul.

    1. Paul says:

      Cheers Hayden. You guys leading the way as ever but I do like the idea of trying to introduce a reusable scheme – it could be great. I’ve started some research, I wonder who’d be interested?

      Something you’d consider?

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