I’m depressed. Just calculated my carbon footprint with Global Footprint Network and 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!
Honestly my first reaction to the result was ‘What’s the point?’ and to immediately fantasise about running the tap, leaving the light on and buying foil-lined crisps. This reminded me of something that I recently read in a book titled ‘Inside the Nudge Unit: How small changes can make a big difference’ by David Halpern. He explained that research has shown that when faced with overwhelmingly negative news people are more likely to give up than work to change things. He suggests that, given the irrationality of the human mind, constantly harping on about increasing levels of obesity in the population are more like to make us more obese, not less.
I wonder are carbon footprint calculators actually less likely to encourage us to make sustainable choices given what appears to be the ultimate futility of it all. Perhaps but today I’ve decided not to let an app dictate my actions. After all who knows how accurate it is.
So today I want to talk about disposable coffee cups. Eighteen months ago I thought these little blighters 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 recent research at Trinity College in Dublin suggests that you if you use a ceramic mug more than 25 times you it would have a lower carbon footprint than a paper or Styrofoam cup and with a plastic cup you would only have to use it more than 16 times for it to beat a disposable cup. It’s important to point out that the comparison was limited to non-renewable energy resources used and the global warming potential from using those resources, and not other environmental issues like litter pollution. Finally the research appears to have been funded by a reusable cup manufacturer. You can read more about this comparison between reusable and disposable cups here and an overview of the research by Dr Sabrina Stierwalt on Quick and Dirty Tips (what a website name!)
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. The bamboo section is biodegradable but the silicone lid is not currently recyclable in Ireland. Despite what you read bamboo is not currently a fully-sustainable material, although it does have the capacity to be. This is because the farming of bamboo is not regulated and there are signs that native forests are being cut down to facilitate it’s planting. If you opt for a cup like this consider it’s durability. It’s unsustainable to have to replace a reusable cup frequently due to poor construction quality.
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 an 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 there is enough plastic in 28 disposable cups to make a small plastic KeepCup (source: Keepcup.com) the numbers speak for themselves.
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 post) 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 currently available from Debenhams, the Hopsack in Dublin and on coffeeshop.ie. If you can drop into Debenhams or the Hopsack in person they might be the cheapest but if you’re buying a few or online we found coffeeshop.ie the best value.
- 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.