The problem of coffee cups and plastic waste – should I stay or should I go?

Do we need to have access to food and services 24hours a day, seven days a week? This at least what has been suggested by a growing culture and industry since the 1980s in the States and since the 1990s in Europe. A doner kebap for lunch, a quick snack from the kiosk next to the metro station and of course not to forget an extra large coffee from the petrol station on the way home …

These all seem moments of (un)rest in a world of accelerating mobility with two key advantages: longer-than-usual opening hours and the right assortment of products to make life easier and more efficient. In other words, they’re time-savers. It almost seems that the main question is no longer “what” or even “who” we eat, but rather “how” and “where” we eat it.

This “to-go” culture is confronting us with a growing problem, however: what to do with all the garbage? Although many of the cups are made out of paper or even recycled paper, the lining consists of polyethylene plastic which only decomposes slowly in nature. Turned into microplastics, it finds its way into the soil and groundwater.

In Germany alone, 320.000 coffee-to-go cups are consumed every hour, that is 2.8 billion cups a year! In addition, coffee-to-go cup production devours massive amounts of resources and energy: 29,000 tonnes of paper, 1.5 billion litres of water and 320 million kWh of energy. And let’s not forget the 83,000 tonnes of CO2. So no wonder that cities are sounding the alarm.

Several German cities have started to give a response by introducing reusable cups and deposit-based systems, e.g. the “Freiburg Cup”, “RECUP” or the “Mehrweg=Mehrwert” initiative in Berlin Spandau. The idea is easy: different cafés in the city form a network and offer reusable cups for 1 Euro deposit which can be used in any of the participating cafés. The 1 Euro will be returned when they deposit the cup which will not be thrown away but cleaned and reused (up to 500 times aproximately). Another positive side effect is that often the coffee in the reusable cups is cheaper!

And many other ideas have been emerging in cities to avoid plastic foodwaste. In Seattle, for example, they are currently considering a ban for plastic straws which is supposed to enter into force in 2018. And in France a new ban on plastic cups, plates and cutlery was recently passed with the aim of mitigating the impact of climate change. By 2020, all French disposable tableware is required to be made from 50% biologically-sourced materials that can be composted at home.

Good practice is one thing, but culture is another. And one of the most environmental friendly systems is still practiced a lot in Southern Europe: take your basket to the market for foodshopping, eat a decent meal with friends and family at home or enter a bar for a proper “coffee-to-stay”!

Author: Dorothee Fischer