Disposable Coffee Cups are a Problem – What is the Solution?

With an increased awareness of the need to reduce waste, many restaurants have stopped using disposable plastic straws. The next likely target is the single-use coffee cup. Coffee cups are a particular problem, because none of the current disposable cups can be either recycled or composted. There are challenges to finding a compostable or recyclable material that can handle the considerable heat of coffee or hot tea, and which is cheap enough not to force prices beyond what consumers are willing to pay.

Starbuck’s, McDonald’s and Yum have partnered with the Ideo industrial-design think tank to run a competition to come up with a solution, with $10 million committed to the NextGen Cup Challenge. The challenge currently has 29 semi-finalists in the running.

In the meantime, though, there are things restaurants can do:

  1. Encourage consumers to bring their own mugs or thermos’ by offering a discount or, alternatively, by charging for the disposable cups. Starbucks is combining both of these approaches in the U.K.
  2. Provide reusable cups, either free or for a small charge. Pubs and bars have traditionally sold tankards by including them in the price of a “special” large drink. This approach could also work for restaurants and coffee shops.
  3. Use permanent ware cups. In Boulder, one group of restaurants is making this easier by clubbing together to pay for a third party to sanitize and redistribute used cups, and they claim it costs less than buying disposables.
  4. Smart cups. Costa Coffee has recently introduced the “clever cup.” This cup has a silicon base that contains contactless payment technology. The base is removed to wash the cup, then put back on when you take it to the store and use it to pay for your coffee – and not just at Costa. Customers use a smartphone app, which could also be used to track payments and provide loyalty bonuses. Ohio State has been giving out cups with an RFID sticker that communicates with self-serve dispensers, allowing students to buy coffee at a lower rate when they use the cup.
  5. Biodegradable cups. There are some biodegradable cups, which use bioplastics for heat prevention. However, they are a more expensive option that could be prohibitive for some.

Disposable coffee cups are a large problem – 58 billion disposable paper coffee cups are used in the U.S. alone each year. Reducing this waste could help the environment and also attract savvy consumers who know to be concerned.


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