How to make safe coffee cup choices with sustainabilty in mind.

Amy Oroko

Sustainability Manager at Matthew Algie


Amy studied Economics & International Development at the University of Bath and gained experience working in development consulting in Malawi and rural Scotland, before moving into a sustainability role at Matthew Algie in 2014.

As Sustainability Manager, Amy is responsible for coordinating the company’s approach to sustainability, including our strategy, projects and internal and external communications in relation to sustainable sourcing, reducing our environmental impact, investing in our employees, and, engaging with our community.

Over the last few years she has launched our inaugural Sustainability 5 Year Plan, implemented several supply chain collaborations with coffee cooperatives and helped us to achieve net-zero carbon emissions.

Earlier in the year Amy was accepted to the Edie “30 Under 30” Class of 2020 – a training programme to develop the knowledge and leadership skills of young sustainability, CSR and energy professionals in the UK.

Let's Talk about Cups.

On a Scottish July sunny day my husband and I realised, with excitement, that our favourite restaurant was open. I’ll admit I was surprised when our entire meal was served in disposable packaging. Concern for customer safety needs to remain paramount, but sadly the wooden cutlery proved no match for our food. And is this approach any safer considering the waiter still had to clear our used packaging from the table?

The jury is out on whether coronavirus will undo some of the great progress made to date on reducing single use packaging. How can we help with the complex choice coffee shops face now when it comes to cups? Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, the decision on coffee cups was rarely crystal clear from an environmental perspective. There might not be a right or wrong answer, but there are options.

“Ultimately hot drinks look more appealing in porcelain cups and remain hot for longer.”

Porcelain Cups

Reusable porcelain cups remain the clear frontrunner from a sustainability perspective. They offer a superior sensory experience as they arguably taste and feel better than paper, plastic or bamboo alternatives. Ultimately hot drinks look more appealing in porcelain cups and remain hot for longer. Two things to consider:

  • Keep them in use for as long as possible - Take care of them; choose a robust design, easy to grab and lift; and of a style that endures. A long lifespan will impact positively when considering carbon emissions.

  • Use an energy efficient dish washer – This will ensure a reduced cup footprint as well as energy bills.

Though reusables may be widely perceived as higher risk now, a group of scientists has reassured the public that reusable containers are safe . Epidemiologists, virologists, biologists, chemists and medical doctors, advise that if basic hygiene is followed during washing, these cups are a safe choice.

What might put operators off from using porcelain cups now is fear of handling dirty cups. Regular handwashing should by now be routine and segregating staff by those who handle clean cups from dirty cups can offer a neat solution. But what porcelain doesn’t offer is a good solution for take away.

Re-usable Cups

With increasing consumer awareness about the environmental impact of disposable coffee cups, many have invested in their own reusable cup. The same safety principles apply to reusables but maybe the fear is a little higher. Operators can take practical steps to reintroduce reusable cups safely (check out the “5 steps” detailed in our Coffee Extract article in July). Food safety concerns are paramount so it is important to insist that only clean, dry cups will be accepted.

Hospitality outlets can encourage consumers to use reusable cups and reduce their reliance on disposables by selling them, giving customers a discount or reward them with loyalty card points/ offers. One of the more innovative ideas out there is a “swap and go” system, which works well in particular locations like University campuses or offices. Consumers either pay a small deposit or pay a subscription fee to use the service, and they “borrow” a reusable cup when they buy a coffee. When they’re finished, they return their cup or swap it for a new cup at a participating location. This scheme has the added benefit of the cups being stored and sanitised in house. Trust in the cleaning practices and the operators of the scheme is essential.

Disposable Cups

It’s thought that we use 500 million of disposable cups yearly in Scotland alone. They are convenient and can minimise direct contact between consumers and café employees, especially where consumers place them directly into waste streams. Standard disposable cups are also relatively cost effective, and reduce the cleaning burden, which could be significant in busy hospitality sites.

Nevertheless, the environmental concerns are substantial, and though research has shown that most consumers (70%) believe they regularly recycle their coffee cups , a recent report by the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group (PCRRG) stated that just 6% are currently being recycled in the UK . The confusion possibly stems from the fact that standard paper cups are technically recyclable. However, the plastic lining makes them difficult to recycle in normal paper recycling mills, especially when they have residue from coffee or milk. The two clear options for responsible disposal of waste cups are to either:

  • Set up cup recycling collections - Standard disposable cups can be recycled into products such as luxury stationery or reusable cups, such as our rCUPs.

  • To use plant-based cups such as Vegware - Vegware disposables can be commercially composted. The compost is used in agriculture, horticulture, and landscaping to nourish soil and help grow healthy plants.

In both cases, the cups need to be collected in partnership with an organisation with the required processing infrastructure. Unfortunately, they cannot simply be put in a standard paper recycling or food waste bin; 94% of the time disposable cups are sent to landfill (or other form of processing like burning for energy). Worst-case scenario they end up as litter on our streets.

Operators may not consider this a direct problem as when used for take-away, customers normally walk away and take the problem away with them.

Recycling or Composting?

So, this begs the question, what happens to takeaway cups and is there a choice? There is cup recycling and cup composting. Unfortunately, availability varies by region and type of hospitality outlet. At present, neither commercial composting nor recycling cup collections have nationwide coverage. Look at what is available in your area, the associated cost of collections and any new bins or signage required. We’re happy to help customers to work through this conundrum on a case-by-case basis.

• For recycling options: look at PCRRG’s map of waste handlers offering cup recycling: www.pcrrg.uk/cup-collectors.html

• For commercial composting: review Vegware’s composting regions: www.vegware.com/uk/page/composting-regions

It’s also worth looking at local initiatives which could provide support, such as the Cup Movement in Glasgow: www.keepscotlandbeautiful.org/cup-movement. There may also be bespoke solutions available, for example Dundee and Angus College set up onsite composting to process all their waste food and Vegware packaging.

What if neither is available?

“Vegware products have the excellent accolade of being made from plants, using renewable, lower carbon, reclaimed or recycled materials.”

With waste collection infrastructure as it stands in the UK, it’s possible that neither paper cup recycling nor composting is available to those who want them. This is likely to change soon, as waste collection partners scramble to meet the increasing demand for collections from the hospitality sector. However, it’s also possible that location or the type of operation does not allow the capture waste disposable cups. In these instances, there are arguments in favour of both sides.

Arguably, cup recycling collection infrastructure is more developed in the UK now. Some major coffee chains including Costa Coffee, Café Nero, McDonalds, Starbucks, Greggs and Pret A Manger are now acting as collection points for recycling of waste paper cups from any brand. Vegware products have the excellent accolade of being made from plants, using renewable, lower carbon, reclaimed or recycled materials. This is a message that is sure to resonate with consumers. At present, I believe that Vegware is slightly preferable as an option, but if you go down this route it’s important to think carefully about how you communicate the “Made from plants, not plastic” message.

Talking about cups is important, because what we do now impacts on the future. Right now, the concern for our sustainable planet has never been more important. We’re here to help.

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Still confused about cups? Use our handy decision tree to help make a sustainale choice...