They’re lightweight, easy to handle, and basically free — we don’t think about them too much, but single-use coffee cups almost sound too good to be true. Alas, in a way, they really are too good to be true. Takeaway coffee cups are filling the world’s landfills with needless plastic.
Drinkers may be willing to switch to a reusable cup, but a study found that the absence of waste infrastructure and the world’s “throwaway” culture is limiting sustainable change.
Despite being largely made of paper, the interior of disposable coffee cups have is layered with plastic polyethylene that is bonded to the paper – making the cups waterproof and able to contain hot liquid. This makes them much more difficult to be recycled. They still are technically recyclable (something that companies like to promote on the packaging, but in practice, this rarely happens in most countries.
The cups can’t be recycled at standard recycling plants and have to be taken instead to special facilities, which are lacking in most parts of the world. That’s why your coffee cups usually end up in landfills with the rest of the trash, taking hundreds of years to break down and polluting the environment. Gradual breakdown results in microplastics that can be ingested by animals and potentially toxic chemicals.
But that’s not the only problem. Many paper cups that are disposed of are made from virgin paper pulp, which means trees are taken down to produce a product that will last for a very limited period of time. Add to this the carbon footprint of manufacturing the cup and the distribution, concluding in a major impact on the global environment.
Reusable cups are the way to go
Seeking to better understand the problem, researchers from the University of South Australia explored the enablers and barriers that impact the adoption of environment-friendly takeaway coffee cups. To do so, they carried out in-depth interviews and non-participant observations with consumers and stakeholders.
For Sukhbir Sandhu, lead researcher, change is required at all levels, from individuals to retailers.
“There’s no doubt we live in a disposable society – so much of our lives is about convenient, on-the-run transactions. But such a speedy pace encourages the ‘takeaway and throwaway’ culture that we so desperately need to change,” Sandhu said in a statement.
“With the popularity of arty, patterned paper cups on the rise, you may think you’re buying a recyclable option. But no – most takeaway coffee cups are in fact lined with a waterproof plastic, which is not only non-recyclable, but also a contaminant.
The study showed consumers continue to buy coffee no matter the lack of recyclable or compostable cup in coffee shops, and factors such as packaging that look similar to reusable cups is limiting effective changes. This adds up to the lack of suitable waste disposal infrastructure in shops, such as having organic bins for consumers to throw away their compostable cups.
“Educating and informing people about the issues of single-use coffee cups is effective – people generally want to do the right thing – but knowing what’s right and acting upon it are two different things, and at the moment, there are several barriers that are impeding potential progress,” Sandhu said. “For example, if your favorite coffee shop doesn’t offer recyclable or compostable cups, it’s unlikely to stop you.”
The researchers argued that environmental messaging and pro-environmental behavior are necessary to change consumers’ preferences regarding takeaway coffee cups. This has to be accompanied by broader institutional changes, such as providing waste disposal infrastructure and altering monetary incentives for disposing takeaway cups.
The key aspect is that consumers are aware and try to make environmentally conscious decisions. This, in turn, can drive change in sellers.
“It’s important to drive home clear, strong messages about single-use plastics and their impact on the environment,” Dr. Sandhu says. “The more we can drive people to choose reusable cups, the more uptake we’ll see. People like to mimic what their colleagues, friends and peers do, especially when it is the right thing.”
The study was published in the Journal of Cleaner Production.