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 in 2016 I wrongly thought disposable coffee cups were compostable and recyclable. Now that I know they’re neither in Ireland I have adopted the zeal of a reformed smoker in my efforts to make single-use coffee cups obsolete. Here’s my close friend Hugh Fearnley- Whittingstall with the low-down.
Why aren’t Single-use Cups Recyclable?
Recycling (or more accurately downcycling) of single-use cups is possible, but it’s notoriously difficult and is currently only carried out by two companies in England. The downcycling of single-use cups is difficult because the cups are a composite of plastic and paper and these two materials must be separated in order for them to be re/downcycled seperately, and this separation process is 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.
Don’t Compostable Cups solve the problem?
Some feel that compostable cups might be the solution to our single-use cup woes but although a better option than standard disposable coffee cups there are still problems with compostable cups.
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 single-use cups still use up valuable resources for what is essentially a single use. They require ‘virgin’ paper, i.e. paper from forests, and the same amount of energy to make, transport and collect as standard takeaway cups.
Reusable Cups are the most Sustainable, and cost effective, Solution
Using a reusable cup does away with any of the problems caused by recyclable or compostable single-use 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.
Before you know it your coffee discount will pay for your reusable cup!
Some people argue that the carbon footprint of reusable coffee cups are just too high to justify them but that all depends on what your reusable cup is made from, how many times you use it in lieu of a disposable cup and how you wash it.
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. That said washing your cup can make it less sustainable so make aim to wash your reusable cup with your general washing up to avoid using additional water.
Which Reusable Coffee Cup to Choose?
If you haven’t already invested in a reusable coffee cup then here is a guide on the types currently available.
The Low down on Bamboo Reusable 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.
Despite what some manufacturers claim bamboo cups are not compostable. 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. It’s also worth noting that 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, causing Holland to ban bamboo fibre tableware completely and lots more European countries restricting bamboo material use with food.
Glass Reusable Cups
People wanting to avoid any contamination of their liquids would be well served to buy a glass cup, because glass is the most inert material to serve drinks in.
The well know brand, Keepcup do a very nice glass version, which comes with a cork heat band made from waste from the Portuguese wine cork manufacturing industry. Both the lid and the glass of this cup is recyclable at the end of it’s life, although I’m not sure what waste stream you’d put them into in Ireland.
If you’d prefer to support an Irish company making glass reusable cups, then check out Monkey Cups who offer a glass keep cup with a plastic lid and silicone sleeve.
Another well respected brand of reusable glass coffee cup is Joco
There are two downside to glass reusable cups, firstly they’re easier to break and secondly the glass they’re made from is not recyclable.
Plastic Reusable 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.
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 to keep these products in use for as long as possible.
The main downside to using plastic reusable cups is the exposure to chemicals. It’s true you can now get cups free of BPA and BPS, but we know very little about the chemicals being used to replace these two so we may still be putting our health at risk. That said single-use cups are lined with plastic that contain PFAs which are a know carcinogen so if you’re going to expose yourself best to use a reusable plastic cup than a single-use version,.
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.
These cups are generally lined with plastic and so expose you to chemicals in the same way that standards plastic reusable cups do.
One 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 of those on the market.
Unfortunately silicone isn’t recyclable in Ireland but in theory the plastic components are, although again I’m not sure in which waste stream. 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
I should mention that very little research has been carried out on the impact of silicon tableware on human health so I choose to sit in and use reusable ceramic cups when I can and limit my use of my silicon reusable cup.
General Tips when Choosing a Reusable Cup
- 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.