When I first calculated my carbon footprint with Global Footprint Network in 2017 I was depressed. Despite eating less meat, driving an electric car and working towards zero waste the app estimates that we’d need 3.6 earths if everyone lived like me. Eeek! But 18 months later the same calculator says I’d only need 0.8 earths for my lifestyle, i.e. I’m using less resources than the earth can replenish in a 12 month period. Proof that small changes work, and on that note here’s a guide to one small change you can make; using a reusable cup.
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When I started out on my zero waste journey I thought disposable coffee cups were either compostable or recyclable. Now that I know that they’re neither in Ireland I have become the coffee cup equivalent of a former smoker and have the zeal of the converted in working to make them obsolete. Here’s my close friend Hugh Fearnley- Whittingstall with the low-down.
Recycling (or more accurately downcycling) of takeaway cups is possible, but it’s notoriously difficult and is currently only carried out by two companies in England. The downcycling of takeaway cups is difficult because the cups are actually a composite of plastic and paper and these two materials must be separated in order to be downcycled – something that currently very difficult to do. For this reason more than 200 million takeaway cups in Ireland are either dumped in landfill or incinerated each year.
Some feel that compostable cups might be the solution to our takeaway cup woes but although a better option than standard disposable coffee cups there are problems with them. Firstly compostable cups need to be segregated to a compost bin in order for them to compost/ break down. If not, they can end up contaminating recycled paper streams, or end up in landfill waste. Secondly compostable takeaway cups still use up valuable resources for what is essentially a single-use item. They require ‘virgin’ paper, i.e. paper from forests, and the same amount of energy to make, transport and collect as standard takeaway cups.
Using a reusable cup does away with any of the issue with recyclable or compostable takeaway cups plus you can get cheaper coffee. Check out this google map of discount coffee cup vendors, which was created by the campaign group Conciouscup.ie. The cafes listed on this map give discounts / incentives to users of reusable travel cups. If you know of a café that does this let them know about the conscious cup campaign. It’ll help them connect with appreciative customers.
Some people argue that the carbon footprint of reusable coffee cups is just too high to justify them but that all depends on what your reusable cup is made from and how many times you use it in lieu of a disposable cup. The Centre for the Life Cycle of Products, Processes, and Services (CIRAIG) found that it takes between 20 and 100 uses for a reusable cup to make up for the greenhouse gas emissions of a single-use cup. Be warned though, washing your cup out will make it less sustainable unless you do so with waste water or when you’d be washing other stuff anyway.
So if you haven’t already invested in a reusable coffee cup then here is a guide on what’s currently available.
Bamboo cups – You should be able to find cups made from Bamboo in supermarkets and in homeware stores quite easily. They’re lightweight and have generally inexpensive. Some manufacturers claim that their cups are compostable but I can’t see how this is possible. These cup aren’t made from complete sections of bamboo they’re made from bamboo fibre bound together with some sort of resin, typically synthetic in nature, and often melamine. Also the silicone lids that typically come with these cups are not currently recyclable in Ireland. In addition to this the farming of bamboo is not regulated and there are signs that native forests are being cut down to facilitate it’s planting. Finally research has shown that the binding agent in a lot of bamboo cups is putting your health at risk.
Glass cups – Keepcup do a very nice glass version, which comes with a cork heat band made from waste from the Portuguese wine cork manufacturing industry. People wanting to avoid any contamination of their liquids would be well served by such a glass. Both the lid and the glass of this cup is recyclable at the end of it’s life. Another well respected brand of reusable glass coffee cup is Joco
Plastic Cups – These seem to be the most popular type of reusable cup. They are lightweight, resistant to breaking, affordable and typically come in very attractive colours. Make sure you choose one that is BPA and BPS free and can be recycled at the end of it’s life. Some people are against the buying of plastic to prevent the use of plastic but when you consider that a plastic Keepcup contains the same amount of plastic as 20 disposable cups (source: Keepcup.com) the numbers speak for themselves. Also some reusable cup makers, like Keepcup, offer a replacement service for components, which is a nice sustainable option.
Vacuum cups- These are ideal for those that want to keep their beverage as hot as possible and from talking to people the Bodum vacuum travel cup seems to be very popular. It’s made from stainless steel and has a silicone lid and heat band. It also has a silicone base to prevent cup rings. Contigo thermal mugs are more expensive but are said to be leakproof, unlike the Bodum ones. Klean Kanteen also do an insulated tumbler which I’ve heard from users is leakproof.
Collapsible Cups – Last Christmas my husband purchased a collapsible silicone coffee (see photo at start of article) for me from Stojo. It’s small, lightweight, durable and very easy to clean. We’ve checked out a few collapsible cup options and we found that this collapsed the best and to the smallest size (the red cup on the left shows how small it collapses. Unfortunately silicone isn’t recyclable in Ireland but the plastic components are. These cups are starting to become widely an can currently be bought from quite a few places now including the Hopsack in Dublin 6 and on coffeeshop.ie or check out my list of Sustainable E-tailers
- Decide which properties are most important to you; cost, heat retention, weight, size or resistance to leaking.
- Buy a cup that is as easy to clean as possible. Coffee crud is not nice and to be avoided at all costs.
- Buy the best quality cup you can afford. It’s less sustainable to buy a poor quality cup that you’re going to have to replace in the short term.