Disposable Cups, What Happens To Them?

Whether it’s an impulse buy, a social occasion, or part of your ritual, the unofficial coffee club is a pretty big one. In cities all over the world a sea of disposable cups part the paths of commuters on the way to work. Bogged down with bags, bus cards and whatever else the cup of coffee still seems to make the cut for that invaluable hand space – even when I was pregnant I couldn’t be deterred despite the fact it was decaf. Sometimes it’s the promise of a cup of Joe that gets you up in the morning or it is the key ingredient to surviving a long lecture. That enjoyable cup of comfort is often the one luxury when all others have been pushed off the menu by personal budget cuts. Is it the smell, taste, or fuzzy sometimes jittery feeling that keeps us coming back for more? Willing to part with another couple of euro without second thought, the odd time the word alone will be enough to make me impulse buy, coffee. With the average drinker whom I surveyed buying 4 take away cups a week, it’s no wonder that disposable cups are a growing concern for the environment. 

Many of us take comfort in the misconception that when we are done with our lovely take away cup it can go off on holiday to the recycling camp. At least I did until a Sunday morning in 2016 when an RTE radio show burst my bubble right in the middle of my breakfast cup. It turns out there is an inside polyethylene plastic layer keeping your coffee in the cup and your cup out of the recyclable camp. It’s this layer which deems many of them UNRECYCLABLE – unless they get to one joyous facility in England! So, what have I been doing all these years proudly carrying around my used coffee cups to take home? Wasting my time and staining my handbags it seems! When really all along it was just going to join the other millions of disposable cups in the unusable camp – landfill.

Most disposable coffee cups go straight to landfill waste. Source.

While there are biodegradable and decomposable options out there, with the extra cost it’s no surprise few cafés supply them and they aren’t common place. Even the compostable cup comes with its obstacles, needing to be put in the compost bin for one because they won’t decompose properly in landfill.

Enter the Reusable Cup solution! It has many advantages – the environment, save money (with some coffee shops offering a discount) and there are some nice options out there, if you’re into cups! So why haven’t we all invested? Unsurprisingly 44% of coffee drinkers I surveyed hadn’t thought about it, the second biggest reason was the hassle, which is probably the reason most people hadn’t thought of it, it can be inconvenient. But unfortunately, when it comes placing the environment on top priority convenience sometimes must give a little. At the end of the day if we did everything for convenience we’d be broke and the planet would be in even more trouble.

So, what factors might change the minds of the 95% of people who don’t currently bring a reusable cup? Over half surveyed said a discount would encourage them. Some coffee shops do, but sometimes you have to ask as it is not always well-advertised. Another 33% said if they saw a cup they liked they would use it. Thankfully as the re-usable cup becomes more popular so does our choice of design. The most common ones are plastic, which is never environmentally ideal, but as they are not single use cups at least it’s a victory of sorts for landfill. However, there are also some cool alternatives available, my preference has been glass.

Glass Keep Cup
Glass Keep Cup. Source.

There is the concern that if we all have reusable cups it might get complicated for the Barista. Possibly, but I think we have a long way to go for that to happen and like everything systems adapt and progress with change.  The current system is designed for take away cups so if we all jump aboard the eco train surely cafes will have to tailor to fit, after all we are the customers.

If you are considering investing here are a few things I found helpful.

Ditching Disposable Cups: Reusable Cup Tips

  1. Get one that you love – you will be more likely to use it and mind it!
  2. Get other people to join in, it becomes a sad albeit fun coffee cup admiration club – yes, I did just write that, I cringed a little, probably not enough though.
  3. Take something out of your bag that you don’t really need, that way you make the space – for me this was make-up.
  4. Anti-Spill! If you are going to stick at it you need to invest in one that when empty will prevent those last drops from making a java pool in your bag.
  5. Remind yourself why you’re doing it!


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