Disposable cups require a fair amount of resources to manufacture for a product that is only intended to be used once. Despite being called “paper cups” they are all lined with thin layers of polyethylene plastic or other resins. This renders them non-biodegradable, and rarely recyclable. And that’s not even accounting for the plastic tops, or cups made entirely from polystyrene foam or plastic!
With over 600 billion disposable cups used a year, the waste generated by single-use cups is a big problem. There is, however, one that is fairly easy to deal with. Pledge #16 is simple – get your own reusable coffee cup!
What can I do?
Use your own – especially if you’re a habitual coffee or fast-food consumer:
- Always take your own reusable coffee mug.
- If a local coffee shop offers a discount for bringing your own reusable mugs, reward their initiative by giving them your business.
- Keep your mug with you in your car or at work. This stops being an inconvenience when it becomes part of your routine.
- If you’ve forgotten your cup – rather give the drink a skip. The inconvenience will be a reminder and encouragement for you to remember your cup next time.
- If you MUST have a soda with a meal at an establishment that does not allow you to use your own container, refuse the straw and lid. Consider eating at the establishment, rather than taking take-out or using the drive-through. There is a higher likelihood of their internal waste management service being able to recycle the packaging they offer.
- Keep your other pledges in mind – say no to polystyrene/plastic food packaging and keep your own water bottle too!
- If you do end up with a disposable cup in your hands – please recycle it! Make sure it is clean and dry so that it doesn’t contaminate other paper waste. Make sure your outdoor bin is firmly closed. Remember – this material is not recycled everywhere so this is a last resort!
Why does it matter?
600 billion cups are no joke – especially considering how easily they blow out of bins and the fact that they are often disposed of on-the-go rather than in dedicated recycling bins.
Once they blow into the ocean or environment, the paper in the cup biodegrades.. This leaves behind a plastic film, which looks a lot like a transparent plastic bag. Marine animals that eat jellyfish can easily mistake this bag as food. Coffee cup lids are equally devastating. They are too lightweight to be recycled so end up going to landfill and incinerators or end up in the environment.
The linear ‘buy, use, then throw away’ model is exactly what is causing us to drown in our own plastic soup. This is a message worth repeating when it comes to disposable plastic convenience items of all forms.
Everything we do matters. Making the decision not to use disposable coffee cups has a far-reaching impact on the environment. The consumer chain of producing, buying, using and then discarding needs you to complete it. If you decide not to be part of that chain by using a reusable mug, you remove one link. The more people who remove themselves from this chain, the more the manufacturers will be incentivised to integrate truly reusable options into their design. At the very least, they will offer single-use options that genuinely have a minimal environmental impact. As a consumer, the decisions you make can be incredibly powerful!
Myth-busting: Coffee cups are biodegradable. Not!
People think that take-away coffee and cooldrink cups are made from paper and that, because of that, they are not as harmful as plastic cups are. As we have pointed out, this is only partially true!
Like soda cans (which we discussed in Pledge #9), paper cups have a “secret” layer of plastic that most people are unaware of. Because of this, paper cups cannot be composted, and recycling can only take place at a few recycling centres that have the technology to separate these layers – even though the paper itself is theoretically reusable several times!
Who can I follow?
A really cool initiative based on the concept of the circular economy is RECUP South Africa – a great alternative to disposable cups that some might find more convenient than maintaining your own reusable coffee cup. Basically, a coffee shop can stock Recups which they can sell to customers at a pretty low price. When a customer returns for their next coffee, they can simply exchange their cup for another clean one. The coffee shop then cleans the returned Recup and puts it back into circulation.
There are lots of great options for reusable cups in South Africa and one piece of advice we have is to support the options offered by your favourite coffee shops. This shows them that there is a demand for their reusable options and that they can actually gain customer loyalty this way is an awesome incentive.