The Cost of Being Eco: Takeaway coffee cups vs reusable alternatives

3 min • 19 Jul 2021
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The latest in our series exploring the cost of everyday eco swaps looks at reusable coffee cups. Lauren Bravo, our resident eco expert, explores whether they’re a financial, as well as environmental saviour

The latest in our series exploring the cost of everyday eco swaps looks at reusable coffee cups. Lauren Bravo, our resident eco expert, explores whether they’re a financial, as well as environmental saviour

It’s time to wake up and smell the truth. Takeaway drinks might be handy for us, but they’re a giant inconvenience for the planet.

A grande problem

In Britain alone we glug our way through at least 2.5 billion single-use coffee cups every year – using some 1.45 billion litres of water and 1.03 million trees. And of that staggering number, according to a 2017 study by the Environmental Audit Committee, only one in 400 cups is actually recycled.

Though they’re made predominantly from virgin paper, the polyethylene coating which keeps the cups waterproof also makes them far harder to recycle. As a result the vast majority end up in landfill, where they have a carbon footprint of over 152,000 tonnes of CO2e annually – similar, the Guardian notes, to the amount produced by 33,300 cars. Even compostable cups don’t get a free pass, as they need to be transported to one of the UK’s 53 industrial composting facilities to be broken down correctly. It’s a high price to pay for a nice flat white.

So what’s the alternative?

Reusable cups have been on the scene for years now, with many chain and independent coffee shops offering a discount to incentivise their use. Though some outlets stopped accepting them as a precaution in the early days of the pandemic, a group of more than 100 scientists declared them safe to use back in June 2020.

And what will that cost you?

Like so many reusable products, prices vary wildly from the basic to the bougie. Ceramic, glass, metal, silicone, double-insulated, terrazzo-print, even techy smart flasks that keep your beverage hot for hours – there are about as many different vessels to drink your coffee out of as there are ways to order it. But at the most affordable end of the spectrum, a Starbucks branded reusable cup is just £1 in store. With 25p off all drinks while using it (or any reusable cup), it’ll only take four trips to the counter before it’s saving you money.

Likewise Costa offers a 25p discount and Pret A Manger a generous 50p discount, while Caffe Nero gives two loyalty card stamps each time you bring a reusable – which means a free drink every five orders. If you buy one regular latte per day at £2.35 each, you’ll have recouped the price of a standard 12oz KeepCup (£11) in a month. Which? calculates that a five-a-week coffee drinker at Caffe Nero could earn 47 free drinks a year.

Consistency is key

Of course, that would involve remembering your loyalty card every time, as well as your reusable cup. And as everyone with a collection of dusty travel mugs at the back of a cupboard will know, remembering to bring them is half the battle. Collapsible cups like StoJo (from £9.50) or Squoffee (£12.24) can help on this score, folding down to a compact size that’s easier to stash in a pocket or handbag.

Saving money and the environment

But if saving money is your priority then you might be better off splashing out on a thermal travel mug that will keep your coffee hot for hours, and brewing your own drink at home. While ghosting your barista isn’t going to conjure up a house deposit, no matter what the ‘experts’ say, the savings aren’t to be sniffed at. In the US, TIME recently calculated that making coffee at home using a basic coffee maker could save an average of $1961.60 (£1422.66) per year compared to a twice-daily Starbucks habit, while even a fancy Nespresso machine still turned out a $1045.5 (£758.25) saving.

Even artisanal beans, which can clock in at £8-10 for a 250g bag, will typically make you 33 single espresso shots or 16 double-shot coffees. Factoring in your milk of choice, that’s still upwards of a £20 saving. So plenty of change left for a croissant, then.

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